Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Passing it On

March 27 - Today's post provided by Ann Malaspina

Passing It On

          When I was researching my book Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper, I contacted Coachman’s son, Richmond Davis, for help in telling her story.  He relayed some of my questions to his mother, who was approaching her nineties. With their assistance, I pieced together Coachman’s amazing life—from running barefoot on dirt roads in Albany, Georgia, during the Great Depression and the closed doors of Jim Crow segregation, to her history-making performance at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, when she became the first black woman  to win an Olympic gold medal.       
            As I was sorting out the details of her winning jump on August 7, 1948 in Wembley Stadium, Davis called to say that Coachman wanted me to mention her childhood teachers back in Albany.  During the 1920s and 1930s, the segregated schools for black children in Albany had few resources except for their teachers. So I made sure to tell about the teacher who went out of her way to take the restless young girl to a track meet, where they watched a boy do the high jump. Soon, Coachman was making high jump bars out of sticks and strings and practicing every chance she got. The teacher had helped her find a passion—and a future Olympic star was already soaring.

          I also mentioned the high school coach who recognized Coachman’s high-flying potential before she was even on his team. He invited her to the Tuskegee Relays at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama.  The school founded by Booker T. Washington hosted the annual athletics contest for young black athletes during a time when segregation laws banned competition with white athletes.  Coachman didn’t have the proper clothes, so a group of teachers pitched in for tennis shoes, shorts, and white socks, making it possible for her to compete at this important event.
Cleve Abbott
        At the Relays, Tuskegee’s Coach Cleve Abbott saw Coachman win the high jump with record-breaking grace.  The pioneering coach, who started the Relays in 1927, had launched women’s basketball, tennis, and track and field teams at Tuskegee long before many schools, black or white, supported women’s athletics.  Abbott made a difference in Coachman’s life, too.  He drove all the way to Albany to ask her parents to let her enroll at Tuskegee and join the Tuskegee Golden Tigerettes track and field team.  Reluctantly, her parents let her go.  As Davis explained to me, young black girls in Albany did not leave home back then.  Traveling was dangerous and money was scarce, and Coachman would rarely be able to come home from school, but Abbott and the other coaches and teachers at Tuskegee would watch out for her.
            Coachman worked hard on the track and off at Tuskegee.  She sang in the choir, played on the basketball team, and sewed football uniforms to earn room and board…and she won the high jump, as well as sprints and relays, at the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national meets every year.  For ten years straight, first at Tuskegee and later at Albany State College (now Albany State University), Coachman, aka “The Tuskegee Flash,” was the national high jump champion.   
Alice (far right) and her relay team
            When the U.S. Olympic team sailed for England in July 1948, Coachman was one of nine black female athletes on the track and field team, a significant change from the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, when two black women made the team.  Her teammates had trained at Tuskegee, Albany, Tennessee State and other black colleges where coaches and teachers had opened doors and lit the flames. While Coachman took home the team’s only gold medal,  Audrey Patterson won the bronze in the 200-meter race, another groundbreaking first for a black woman.
Alice (2nd from left, top row) and the U.S.women's track and field team on the ship S.S. America bound for England. 
            With the Summer Olympic Games returning to London this year, Coachman is again in the news. In January, my publisher Albert Whitman & Company, generously donated Touch the Sky to every student at the Alice Coachman Elementary School in Albany, and Coachman paid a visit to sign a few copies. Afterwards, the principal told a local television reporter, “Mrs. Coachman Davis gave them such an inspiring message about hope and dreams, but most of all, about determination.”
             The same message Coachman’s teachers and coaches had given her.
Hey, let’s pass it on!
Editor's Note:
Ann Malaspina’s next book, Heart on Fire: Susan B. Anthony Votes for President (Albert Whitman & Company), will be out in time for the presidential election in November.
Giveaway:  Would you like to win a copy of Touch the Sky and other books featured on this month's Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month blog?  If so, leave a comment on any post--each comment will give you an entry to win.  A winner will be chosen at random early in April.  


  1. I love this story, and it would work especially well when paired with Wilma Unlimited. The research behind this is as fascinating and inspiring as Coachman is. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I was a high school high jumper well after the start of the Fosbury Flop. I can only imagine the challenges of the high jump without the flop, without proper shoes, or equipment. I will certainly be adding this book to my TBR pile. Thank you!

  3. I never was much of a high jumper or a low jumper, but this story of individual determination and the support of like-mined mentors and friends has such resonance! I agree with Ali B. This book goes on the TBR pile.

  4. I am so ignorant of our past achievers.
    Many thanks for bringing Alice Coachman a new round of recognition.
    I love it that her teachers went out of their way to add spark to her life - which turned out to be her ticket to success. A title every U.S. school library should keep on hand, but especially in the South & in every single library, school or not, in Georgia & Florida. Albany is too well known for a candy factory & not enough well known for Alice Coachman.
    Looking forward to reading Touch The Sky.