African American Women's Olympic Firsts

Social IssuesWomen's Issues

  • Author Sunny Nash
  • Published September 23, 2012
  • Word count 437

The first two African American females to qualify for the Olympics were Louise Stokes and Tydie Pickett.

Louise Stokes and Tydie Pickett were trained at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama after Tuskegee organized one of the nation's first female track and field teams in 1929 and campaigned for the inclusion of its black athletes in the Olympic Games, starting with the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1932.

Although, Stokes and Pickett qualified by defeating other members of their team, U.S. Olympic officials replaced Stokes and Pickett at the last minute with white team members they had previously defeated. Again, in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, U.S. Olympic officials replaced Stokes and Pickett at the last minute with white team members they had defeated in qualifying races.

U.S. politics, Jim Crow laws and racist policies played as significant a role as foreign influences in both the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. In 1936, some observers blamed the German government for forcing a change in the line-up of the U.S. women's track and field team because of the German leadership's attitude toward non-Aryans. This included their own athlete, Gretel Bergmann, a 20-year-old high jumper from Stuttgart, Germany.

The nation’s official sports club, the German Track and Field Association, barred Bergmann and other Jews from its membership and controlled all athletic activities in the nation, following government policy regulating which members of its population would participate in the Olympics. This policy against non-Aryans may have caused the Americans to remove Louise Stokes and Tydie Pickett from the line-up.

Disallowing Jews, living in Germany, from competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics ignited worldwide protests of the Berlin Games; more than 10,000 gathered at Madison Square Garden in New York to protest. In the end, though, Ireland was the only country in the world to officially boycott the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The United States was represented in Berlin by an Olympic team that included Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in track and field wearing German-made athletic shoes.

The Olympic Games were cancelled in 1940 and 1944 because of the world's involvement in World War II. The next Games were held in 1948 in London, in which African American female track and field stars: Audrey Patterson of Tennessee State won a bronze medal for the 200-meter dash (the first time the 200-meter race was included for females); and Alice Coachman of Tuskegee Institute won a gold medal for the high jump (the first gold medal won by an African American woman).

Since 1948, African American female Olympians have been winning gold medals, making Olympic history and showing the world who they are.

Sunny Nash—leading author on U.S. race relations--writes on U.S. history and contemporary American topics, ranging from Jim Crow laws to social media networking, using her book, Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's, chosen by the Association of American University Presses for understanding of U.S. race relations. Sunny Nash – Race Relations in America

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