This week, Albany and Southwest Georgia lost a rare treasure.
Alice Marie Coachman Davis, the first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal, died Monday at age 90. Her funeral — a private service — is scheduled for this morning at Meadows Funeral Home chapel. Afterward at 1 p.m., a public memorial service for the legendary athlete will be conducted at the school that bears her name — Alice Coachman Elementary School, 1425 W. Oakridge Drive.
Davis won her gold medal in the 1948 Olympics in London, the only U.S. woman to win gold in those Games. She was 25 when she retired after the ‘48 Olympics, having set an Olympic and American high jump record for women at 5 feet, 6 1/8 inches. While she was ranked as one of the Best 100 Olympians in 1996, when the Games were conducted in Atlanta, and was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Hall of Fame in 2004, in all likelihood she would have had an even greater Olympic career had it not been for World War II. That war forced the cancellation of both the 1940 and 1944 Games. She said she was confident she would have taken the gold in ‘44 as well.
“I was at my peak in 1944,” she told The Albany Herald in a 1975 interview. “But the countries were torn apart and there was no Olympics. I had to wait and train four more years to compete. … It is really a proud feeling to stand and watch the American flag waving while the national anthem is playing.”
That world stage was far from Albany and the racial obstacles Davis and other black athletes endured during pre-Civil Rights times. Unable to use the whites-only track, she ran on dirt roads. According to Ann Malaspina, author of a children’s book on Davis titled “Touch the Sky,” the future Olympic legend and her teammates had to eat “on the roadside” and improvise bathroom facilities because white-owned restaurant owners wouldn’t allow them inside their businesses. Even after returning to Albany in Olympic triumph, she was not invited to speak at a ceremony at the Municipal Auditorium honoring her world-class accomplishment.
As she said in a later interview, “Life was very different for African Americans at that time.”
Surprisingly to some, in an interview conducted with Davis when she was inducted into the USOC Hall of Fame, she didn’t cite the Olympic gold as her proudest athletic accomplishment. Instead, she pointed to her performance in 1939. That year, she set Amateur Athletic Union high school and college women’s high jump records, despite the fact that she was competing barefoot. She was attending Tuskegee (where she would lead her women’s basketball team to three straight conference championships) against the wishes of her father, who believed it was too dangerous for his daughter to go off to college and to compete in the Nationals. But she saw the pride her parents felt in her accomplishment and in her accounts of what she had seen and experienced along the way.
The litany of her athletic accomplishments is remarkable. Her induction into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1979 notes, among other feats, that she won indoor and outdoor AAU high jump titles in 1939, ‘41, ‘45 and ‘46; won 25 AAU high jump and sprinting contests from 1939-48; was an AAU All-American in four track events 1944-46, and was named to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1935.
Had that been the sum of her accomplishments, it would have been a career worth recognition, one that inspired later athletes. But after Davis retired, she returned to Albany to earn her bachelor’s degree from Albany State University (then college). She went into teaching — inspiring youngsters in a different but important fashion — and started a foundation to help former Olympic athletes who were having troubles in their lives. Fourteen years ago, Alice Coachman Elementary, one of three Dougherty County schools that replaced ones that were damaged in the Flood of 1994, was dedicated. It was a fitting honor to a goodwill ambassador of Albany who inspired youth to challenge their minds as well as their bodies.
Perhaps the greatest tribute that can be made about an individual is that he or she made the world a better place through work, deeds and example. That truly can be said of Alice Coachman Davis, a legend, a teacher and an inspiration. We mourn her loss, but we celebrate her life.
— The Albany Herald Editorial Board