Alice Coachman, first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal, faced racial prejudice in the years before civil rights legislation. She is the subject of new children’s book which tells the story of her work and persistence in preparing for the 1948 London Olympics.
ALBANY, Ga. — The story of Alice Coachman, ground-breaking Olympic high-jumper and former Albany resident, is told in the new children's book "Touch the Sky" by author Ann Malaspina.
The book's illustrations are by Eric Velasquez.
Coachman and her foundation have made arrangements with the publisher, Albert Whitman & Company, for Alice Coachman Elementary School in Albany to receive 500 of the books, a sufficient number for every student to have one.
The author recreates Coachman's Depression-era childhood as she struggles to run faster and jump higher, then relates the conflict with her father, who opposed her scholarship offer at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Coachman did graduate the Institute and later from Albany State College, now Albany State University.
As the story progresses through Coachman's success with the Tuskegee track team and her ultimate win at the 1948 London Olympics, Malaspina blends into the account the racial obstacles Coachman faced in the days before civil rights legislation.
In a section of the book, Coachman and her fellow team members, The Golden Tigerettes, were said to have been forced to have their meals "on the roadside," and to improvise bathroom facilities when they traveled because white-owned restaurants refused them admittance.
A little-known fact of Coachman's competitive practice, according to Malaspina, was her habit of sucking on a fresh lemon before each event.
"She often mentions it," Malaspina said. "She would take a lemon with her to the meets and suck the juice before her jumps. She felt it gave her energy, and at the Olympics she believed the lemon would bring her luck."
The author tells the story of Coachman's record-breaking win in the women's high jump at the London Olympics, which established her as the first African-American woman to win an Olympic event.
On Coachman's return to Albany, she was honored by a parade and a "grand ceremony" at the municipal auditorium downtown, according to Malaspina. Coachman's account of the event was that white and black attendees were assigned separate seating. Although the mayor at the time gave a congratulatory address, Coachman was not invited to speak at the event, Malaspina said.
According to a lengthy account by The Albany Herald, written the day of the ceremony, Herald Publisher James Gray delivered a speech praising Coachman's dedication and determination in winning her Olympic medal.
"I guess I'm happier now than when I won," was Coachman's response to the ceremony, according to the 1948 Herald article.
Malaspina, who lives in New Jersey, began her career working at newspapers in Massachusetts, she said, before moving on to nonfiction of various kinds. Currently, she is a writer of children's books -- up to high school age, she says, and is especially drawn toward books featuring famous people or those who have overcome obstacles to reach their success.
According to Malaspina, she was inspired to write "Touch the Sky" when she attended the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where Coachman appeared and was named one of the "100 Best Olympians."
"She even carried the torch part of the way, and I thought then she hadn't been given the attention she deserved," Malaspina said.
The author said she received a grant from The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators to help with the cost of researching and developing the book.
According to the publisher of "Touch the Sky," a book signing at Alice Coachman Elementary School is planned for Feb. 3 with Coachman in attendance. The signing would most likely be "of a symbolic nature," school sources said, with Coachman signing only a few books.