Track and field star Alice Coachman made history at the 1948 Olympic Games, becoming the first black woman to win an Olympic medal.
Born in Albany, Georgia, on November 9, 1923, Alice Coachman made history at the 1948 Olympics in London when leapt to a record-breaking height of 5 feet, 6 and 1/8 inches in the high jump finals to become the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal. She now supports young athletes and older, retired Olympic veterans through the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation.
Alice Coachman was born on November 9, 1923, in Albany, Georgia. One of 10 children, Coachman was raised in the heart of the segregated south, where she was often denied the opportunity to train for or compete in organized sports events. Instead, Coachman improvised her training, running barefoot in fields and on dirt roads, and using old equipment to improve her high jump.
At Madison High School, Coachman came under the tutelage of the boys’ track coach, Harry E. Lash, who recognized and nurtured her talent. Ultimately, Coachman caught the attention of the athletic department at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, which offered the 16-year-old Coachman a scholarship in 1939. Her parents, who’d initially not been in favor of their daughter pursuing her athletic dreams, gave their blessing for her to enroll.
At Tuskegee, Coachman blossomed as a track and field athlete, competing in and winning her first Amateur Athletic Union Championship in the high jump—all before she’d even begun classes.
Over the next several years, Coachman dominated AAU competitions. By 1946, she was the national champion in the 50- and 100-meter races, 400-meter relay, and high jump. For Coachman, these were bittersweet years. While probably at the peak of her athletic form, World War II forced the cancelation of the Olympic Games in both 1940 and 1944.
Finally, in 1948, Alice Coachman was able to show the world her talent when she arrived in London as a member of the American Olympic team. Despite nursing a back injury, Coachman set a record in the high jump with a mark of 5 feet, 6 1/8 inches, making her the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal. King George VI, father of Queen Elizabeth II, awarded her the honor.
“I didn’t know I’d won,” Coachman later said. “I was on my way to receive the medal and I saw my name on the board. And, of course, I glanced over into the stands where my coach was and she was clapping her hands.”
Later in life, she established the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation to help support younger athletes and provide assistance to retired Olympic veterans.
In the decades since her success in London, Coachman’s achievements have not been forgotten. At the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, she was honored as one of the 100 greatest Olympians in history. She’s also been inducted into nine different halls of fame, including the National Track & Field Hall of Fame (1975) and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame (2004).
Coachman, who married Frank A. Davis and is the mother of two children, resides in Tuskegee, Alabama.