Alice Coachman died on Monday. She was 90. All of us who follow sports should be saddened by her death.
“I paved the way for all of them,” she once said.
Indeed, she did. For Coachman had a claim to fame that none of those others could match. In the ’48 Summer Olympics in London, she finished first in the high jump, becoming the first Black woman to capture a gold medal.
But like most pioneers, Coachman took a circuitous path to Olympic gold. Growing up in the Deep South, she picked cotton in her childhood. She wasn’t allowed to have grand ambitions of a track career. No Black woman was in those days.
“I knew I was from the South,” Coachman once told The New York Times, “and . . . you had to do the best you could.”
Being the best was difficult to measure when white people saddled you with low expectations. They saw in Coachman what they saw in all Negroes: nothing. Negroes were invisible.
A person might as well be invisible if she has to live her life without a dream. In Coachman’s case, she wasn’t going to just stay Black and die. She wasn’t a woman who would let others decide what she should dream – not even her parents.
No, Coachman was willing to follow her dream wherever it took her.
It took her far, too. From Albany, Georgia, to Tuskegee Institute, she would see a world and all the hate it exposed Southern Blacks to. She faced the worst of that hate in the 1930s and 1940s, a period in which she watched her brethren die for a country that wouldn’t afford them equal rights.
Still, Coachman and her peers, men such as Olympian Harrison Dillard, didn’t let the hate that racism produced stop them – not in sports and not in life. They did great things in the face of it all.
Coachman’s legacy, however, wasn’t confined to track. To define her as only a track star – a forgotten one in the minds of too many people – would be to dismiss what Coachman did after she hung up her track shoes.
That’s what she should be remembered most for. She was a barrier-breaker.
Coachman was one of the early Black athletes to cash in on her athletic fame.
Four years after the 1948 Games, Coca-Cola signed her to an endorsement deal, something unheard of for a Black athlete.
Not even Jesse Owens got an endorsement deal for what he did in 1936. Neither did Jackie Robinson in the immediate years after integrating baseball in ’47.
Yet what Coachman did most of all was inspire the next generation of Black women. She showed what each of them could accomplish if they didn’t allow others to dictate their lives.
Coachman never did, and Black people should praise her for this unshakeable resolve even as they mourn her passing.
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(Photo: AP Photo, File)