Alice Coachman, first black woman to win Olympic gold medal dies
by Lilly Workneh
ALBANY, Georgia (AP) — The first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal, Alice Coachman Davis, died early Monday in south Georgia. She was 90.
Davis’ death was confirmed by her daughter, Evelyn Jones.
Davis won Olympic gold in the high jump at the 1948 games in London with an American and Olympic record of 1.68 meters, according to USA Track and Field, the American governing body of the sport. Davis was inducted to the USA Track and Field Hall of fame in 1975, and was inducted to the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 2004.
“Going into the USOC Hall of Fame is as good as it gets,” she told The Associated Press in a 2004 interview. “It’s like Cooperstown, Springfield and Canton,” she said, referring to the sites of other prominent Halls of Fame.
Davis was the only American woman to win a gold medal at the 1948 games. According to Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, Coachman was honored with a 280-kilometer motorcade in Georgia when she returned from London. However, the black and white audiences were segregated at her official ceremony in Albany.
Recollecting her career in the 2004 interview, Davis speculated that she could have won even more Olympic medals, but the Olympics weren’t held in 1940 or 1944 because of World War II. She retired at age 25 after winning the gold medal in London.
“I know I would have won in 1944, at least,” said Davis. “I was starting to peak then. It really feels good when Old Glory is raised and the National Anthem is played.”
Davis attended Tuskegee University and also played basketball on a team that won three straight conference basketball titles. She won 25 national track and field championships — including 10 consecutive high jump titles — between 1939 and 1948, according to USA Track and Field.
Growing up in the deep South during the era of legal segregation, Davis had to overcome multiple challenges.
The New Georgia Encyclopedia says she was prohibited from using public sports facilities because of her race, so she used whatever equipment she could cobble together to practice her jumping.
“My dad did not want me to travel to Tuskegee and then up north to the Nationals,” Davis told the AP. “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 mom were very proud of me.”
Davis won her first national high jump title at age 16 according to USA Track and Field, and worked as a school teacher and track coach after retiring. An elementary school in her home town is named in her honor and opened in August 1999 according to Dougherty County schools officials.
Vera Williams, a secretary at Meadows Funeral Home in Albany, said Meadows will be handling Davis’ memorial service, but plans haven’t been finalized yet. Davis’ cause of death was not immediately disclosed.
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A beauty throwback! In 1950s America Helen Williams became the first black female model to break into the fashion mainstream. Born in East Riverton, New Jersey in 1937, she was obsessed with clothes from an early age, and began sewing her own garments at the age of seven. As a teenager she studied dance, drama and art before getting a job as a stylist at a New York photography studio. While there she was spotted on separate occasions by Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr, who happened to be in the studio doing press shots. Struck by her beauty, they urged her to take up modeling. She was seventeen.
With her trademark bouffant wig, sculpted eyebrows and long, giraffe-like neck, she worked exclusively for African American magazines such as Ebony and Jet. These early years were tough, as not only did beauty’s apartheid system exclude all non-white models from mainstream fashion, but within the black modeling scene itself, the girls were required to be light-skinned, just like the African American chorus girls of the 1920s. “I was too dark to be accepted,” she recalled.
But that was America. The French, by contrast, held a very different view, and by 1960 she’d moved to Paris. “Over there I was ‘La Belle Americaine,’” she said. She modelled in the ateliers of designers Christian Dior and Jean Dessès. By the end of her tenure she was making $7,500 a year working part-time, and she’d received three marriage proposals from French admirers, one of whom kissed her feet and murmured, “I worship the ground you walk on, mademoiselle.”
After Paris she returned to America, where things had not changed at all for dark-skinned models. While searching for a new agent in New York City, she once waited two hours in the reception of one agency, only to be told that they had “one black model already, thanks.” But Williams never-say-die attitude meant that she would not take no for an answer. “I was pushy and positive,” she said. Undeterred at being rejected, the young beauty took her case to the press. Influential white journalists Dorothy Kilgallen and Earl Wilson took up her cause, drawing attention to beauty’s continuing exclusion of black models. This opened things up for Williams, who was then booked for a flurry of ads for brands such as Budweiser, Loom Togs and Modess, which crossed over for the first time into the mainstream press, in titles such as The New York Times, Life and Redbook. By 1961 her hourly rate had shot up to $100 an hour. Fashion’s lily-white membrane had finally been breached.
It was a pivotal moment for black beauty, as Williams’s success broke the tradition for only using light-skinned models. “Elitists in our group would laugh at somebody if they were totally black,” said model-turned-agent Ophelia DeVore. “And when she [Williams] came along she was very self-conscious because she was dark. She gave people who were Black the opportunity to know that if they applied themselves they could reach certain goals.” Williams was the first beauty to break the four hundred year chain that had branded dark skin as ugly. The same dark skin that was rendered second-class during slavery, that the minstrels once ridiculed, and that had relegated Hollywood’s actors to roles as servants and clowns, was suddenly beautiful.
Credit: Lipstick Alley
You may not have heard of Zelda Wynn Valdes, but you’ve certainly seen her designs. The fashion designer is credited with creating the original Playboy bunny costume. The work of the trailblazing fashion designer/entrepreneur highlighted the coveted hour-glass figure in the 1940s and 1950s.
In 1948, was the first Black designer to open up her own shop on Broadway. Valdes created gorgeous gowns many stars like Mae West, Joyce Bryant, Josephine Baker, Gladys Knight, Sarah Vaughan, Dorothy Dandridge, Ella Fitzgerald and countless others.
Later in her life, she created costumes for the Dance Theater of Harlem, and Zelda Wynn Valdes also helped found the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers. She died in 2001 at age 96.
Check out some of her work.
Celebrating the legacy of the incomparable Ruby Dee.
With NANBPWC, INC. spokesperson, Ruby Dee, in New York (circa 1991). Also pictured (Left to Right) Shelley Eaddy, Jacqui Gates, me and Ronnie Harris. To be the best that I can be… I am figuratively standing on her shoulders, and my hands are literally on her shoulders.
The National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, Inc. (NANBPWC, Inc.) was founded by Emma Odessa Young, a realtor from New York City and a member of the New York Club of Business and Professional Women, who conceived the idea of a national organization of business and professional women in 1934.
During this time in our history, black people were called “Negroes”. Very few had businesses or professions. Many were still deep in the throes of the depression. The fact that these black women had the courage to found such an optimistic organization is astounding and a lasting testimony to their faith in themselves, our people, and the future.
Today would be Julian Percy’s 115th birthday. I celebrate his legacy and the accomplishments he made during a time when African Americans seldom received credit for their work.
Percy Lavon Julian (April 11, 1899 – April 19, 1975) was a U.S. research chemist and a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants. He was the first to synthesize the natural product physostigmine, and a pioneer in the industrial large-scale chemical synthesis of the human hormones progesterone and testosterone from plant sterols such as stigmasterol and sitosterol. His work laid the foundation for the steroid drug industry’s production of cortisone, other corticosteroids, and birth control pills.
He later started his own company to synthesize steroid intermediates from the Mexican wild yam. His work helped greatly reduce the cost of steroid intermediates to large multinational pharmaceutical companies, helping to significantly expand the use of several important drugs.
Julian received more than 130 chemical patents. He was one of the first African-Americans to receive a doctorate in chemistry. He was the first African-American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, and the second African-American scientist inducted from any field. Credit: Wikipedia