First black woman to win Olympic gold

First black woman to win Olympic gold

Born: November 9, 1923 Died: July 14, 2014

Loading article content

ALICE Coachman Davis, who has died aged 90, was the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal. She won gold in the high jump at the 1948 games in London with an American and Olympic record of 5.51ft and was inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame in 2004. After her victory Davis was honoured with a 175-mile motorcade in Georgia when she returned from London, but the black and white audiences were segregated at her official ceremony in Albany.

Recollecting her career in the 2004 interview, she speculated that she could have won even more Olympic medals, but the Olympics were not held in 1940 or 1944 because of the Second World War. She retired at 25 after her London victory. "I know I would have won in 1944, at least," she said. "I was starting to peak then. It really feels good when Old Glory is raised and the national anthem is played."

Davis was born one of 10 children and discovered her talent for jumping as a young child. In segregated America, she was not allowed to use public sports facilities, however, and had to use ropes or rags tied together to substitute for proper crossbars.

Encouraged by a teacher at school, she enrolled at Tuskegee University, a black educational institution, where she shattered the school records for high jump. She then went on to win the national championship in high jump in 1939 and won it a further nine times in a row. She also won 25 national athletics championships between 1939 and 1948 and played basketball on a team that won three straight conference basketball titles. "My dad did not want me to travel to Tuskegee and then up north to the nationals," she said. "He felt it was too dangerous. Life was very different for African-Americans at that time. But I came back and showed him my medal and talked about all the things I saw. He and my mum were very proud of me."

She probably would have competed in the 1940 and 1944 Olympics had they not been cancelled because of the Second World War. After her victory at Wembley Stadium in 1948, the medal was presented to her by George VI and she was presented to President Harry Truman at the White House.

The welcome in her home town of Albany, Georgia, was much more mixed. The town's white mayor would not shake her hand, but she did receive many gifts from white supporters, although many did so in secret because they were afraid of the reaction from their white neighbours.

Since Davis's triumph, black women have made up the majority of the US women's track and field teams at the Olympics. "I think I opened the gate for all of them," she said. "Whether they think that or not, they should be grateful to someone in the black race who was able to do these things."

After the Olympics, Davis retired from track and field and became a teacher and also created a foundation to help young athletes in financial difficulties. She is survived by a son and daughter from her first marriage. Her husband, Frank Davis, pre-deceased her.