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A Spectacular Leap

Black Women Athletes in Twentieth-Century America

Jennifer H. Lansbury

Publication Year: 2014

When high jumper Alice Coachman won the high jump title at the 1941 national championships with “a spectacular leap,” African American women had been participating in competitive sport for close to twenty-five years. Yet it would be another twenty years before they would experience something akin to the national fame and recognition that African American men had known since the 1930s, the days of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens. From the 1920s, when black women athletes were confined to competing within the black community, through the heady days of the late twentieth century, when they ruled the world of women’s track and field, African American women found sport opened the door to a better life. However, they also discovered that success meant challenging perceptions that many Americans—both black and white—held of them. Through the stories of six athletes – Coachman, Ora Washington, Althea Gibson, Wilma Rudloph, Wyomia Tyus, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee—Jennifer H. Lansbury deftly follows the emergence of black women athletes from the African American community, their confrontations with contemporary attitudes of race, class, and gender, and their encounters with the Civil Rights Movement. Uncovering the various strategies the athletes use to beat back stereotypes, Lansbury explores the fullness of African American women’s relationship with sport in the twentieth century.

Published by: University of Arkansas Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-2

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pp. 3-10

A misty rain fell on the spectators gathered at Wembley Stadium in London, England, but the crowd was still strong at 60,000. It was the final day of track and field competition for the XIV Olympiad. Dusk was quickly approaching, but the women’s high jump competition was still underway. Two athletes remained, an American by the name of Alice Coachman and the British, hometown favorite, Dorothy Tyler...

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1. Queen of the Courts

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pp. 11-42

In the summer of 1929, a twenty-eight-year-old African American woman by the name of Ora Washington stepped onto a tennis court in New Jersey. Across the net was Frances Gittens, and the two were competing for the top women’s prize in black tennis. Washington had already made a name for herself in the African American community as a four-time...

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2. “The Tuskegee Flash”

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pp. 43-74

In 1939, when Alice Coachman was sixteen years old—or maybe seventeen or eighteen, depending on who you ask—the athletic director at Tuskegee Institute asked her to leave her home in Albany, Georgia, to travel with his women’s track and field team to the national championships in Waterbury, Connecticut.1 Except for her short time training that summer with the team in Tuskegee, Alabama, she had never been away from home...

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3. “A Nationwide Community Project”

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pp. 75-114

In the waning days of the summer of 1946, a tall, lanky, and tomboyish eighteen-year-old Althea Gibson stepped onto the tennis court at Wilberforce College in Ohio to face Roumania Peters. The women’s singles championship in the American Tennis Association was at stake. Peters, a teacher from Tuskegee Institute, was two-time defending women’s champion of the ATA, the black tennis association, separate from the United...

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4. “Foxes, Not Oxes”

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pp. 115-150

She had already won two gold medals that Olympics. The year was 1960, the city was Rome, Italy, and the remaining event was the women’s 400- meter relay. The athlete was Wilma Rudolph, and she was the anchor of the U.S. women’s relay team. She had run with the rest of the relay team before, at Tennessee State University, where the four of them were Tigerbelles, the U.S. national women’s track and field champions...

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5. “The Swiftie from Tennessee State”

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pp. 151-190

No one had ever done it before. In seventy years of modern Olympic history, no track sprinter, man or woman, had ever repeated as 100-meter champion at the Olympic games. Not Jesse Owens. Not Wilma Rudolph. Not an American, a Russian, or an Aussie. There was good reason. As amateur athletes, Olympians who hoped to compete in multiple games needed not only staying power but also money...

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6. “A Jackie of All Trades”

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pp. 191-230

She had waited four years for the opportunity to prove she had overcome her mental demons. In 1984 in Los Angeles, with the East German women boycotting the Olympic games, Jackie Joyner stood as good a chance as any other heptathlete at winning the seven-event competition. But the solid performance of competitor Glynis Nunn of Australia along with Joyner’s obsession over the fitness of her recently healed hamstring...

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pp. 231-246

By the time Jackie Joyner-Kersee approached her fourth Olympic games in 1996, black women athletes had been involved in athletic competition in some form or another for close to eighty years. During that time, they had pushed back against stereotypes that suggested they should not compete, and they had embraced images and opportunities created for them so they could. They had been aided by an expansive black community...


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pp. 247-288


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pp. 289-300


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pp. 301-324

Image Plates

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pp. 325-340

E-ISBN-13: 9781610755429
E-ISBN-10: 1610755421
Print-ISBN-13: 9781557286581

Page Count: 300
Publication Year: 2014