Happy Black History Month! This is the 11th blog of a series of blogs called “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know”. This series will be a collection of my research into little-known Black Americans who have made history in one way or another (or multiple ways!).
The focus of today’s blog is Alice Coachman, the first Black woman from any country to earn an Olympic Gold Medal. She also set the record for the high jump at 5 ft, 6 1/8 inches.
This is her story.
Training Early On
According to biography.com, Alice Coachman grew up as one of 10 children right in the middle of the segregated South in Albany, Georgia. Early on, Coachman knew she wanted to pursue athletics, despite the lack of support from her parents. Because of segregation, Coachman did not have access to proper training equipment and facilities. Nevertheless, Coachman still trained by using old equipment and running barefoot on hard dirt roads. She even made a high jump crossbar out of rope and sticks.
Discovered by High School Track Coach Lash
While enrolled at Madison High School, the boys’ track coach Harry E. Lash recognized Coachman’s athletic talents and helped to train her. During this time, she competed in a national track and field competition for the Amateur Athlete Union. She ended up breaking both the high school and college records for the high jump, and she did it barefooted. Eventually, athlete scouts also recognized her talent and at 16, Coachman was offered a scholarship to attend the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
Competing In College
In 1946, she enrolled at Albany State College, where she would become the national champion for the 50- and 100-meter races, the 400-meter relay, and the high jump. Overall, she was a tremendous athlete, who also enjoyed playing basketball, but her specialty was the high jump. Coachman held the national title for the high jump for over ten years before she competed in the 1948 Olympic Games in London.
Making History at the 1948 Olympic Games
Coachman initially felt hesitant to accept the offer to compete, but when she did accept, she set a new record for the high jump at 5 ft, 6 1/8 inches. This made her the first Black woman from any country to receive an Olympic Gold Medal, which she was awarded by King George VI. She made history, all while healing from a back injury. When she returned to the United States, Former President Harry Truman congratulated her. In her hometown of Albany, they held an “Alice Coachman Day” with a 175-mile motorcade.
After the Olympics
Retired from athletics, Coachman finished her degree at Albany State College. During this time, Coca-Cola offered her an endorsement deal to make her their spokesperson, making her the first Black person to receive one. Since then, she has been inducted into nine different halls of fame. And, in 1996, she was honored as one of the 100 greatest Olympians in history. Of her legacy, Coachman created the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation, which offers support to young athletes as well as retired Olympic veterans. Read more about Alice Coachman here and here.
Read another article from the “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know” blog series here.