BECOMING A TENNESSEE STATE TIGERBELLE
After graduating from Burt High School in 1958, Wilma was awarded a full scholarship to attend Tennessee State University in Nashville where she would run for Coach Temple as an official Tigerbelle. Her scholarship was financial aid that required her to work on campus to earn the scholarship money, which is very different from the athletic scholarships available to female athletes today. Wilma had not run track since the summer before her senior year due to her pregnancy, but she had been preparing to be one of Coach Temple's full-fledged Tennessee State Tigerbelles since her first summer at Tennessee State in 1955. Robert had asked Wilma to marry him and start a family together, but Wilma's father was against it and still blamed him for getting Wilma pregnant. Her family wanted Wilma to receive a college education and continue her track career, hopefully making the team for the next Olympic Games.
Wilma was excited to be a Tigerbelle and was determined to qualify for the 1960 Olympics. She knew that attending Tennessee State would help her achieve this goal. It was still a difficult decision, because Wilma's father was very sick making it impossible for her mother to take care of baby Yolanda. Wilma realized it would have been very difficult for her to attend college, run track, and take care of her daughter. She arranged for her older sister Yvonne, in St. Louis, to take care of baby Yolanda so she could attend college and run track. By the end of her freshman year, Wilma's mother decided she could take care of Yolanda. Coach Temple was not willing to bend any rules to make life easier for Wilma and was a strict disciplinarian, which meant she did not get to make trips home to Clarksville to visit her family and child as often as she would have liked to.
Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State Normal School for Negroes opened in September 1912 to 247 students.
1 That same year, the school fielded their first football team. The school served as the first summer school for African American educators in Tennessee, which was the last segregated state to build a public college for its African American citizens. The university was established as a college to train students to earn their teaching credentials to teach at the elementary and secondary levels. In 1925, the school changed their name to Tennessee A&I State Normal College and in 1927, dropped the word Normal from their title. Soon a graduate school was added and by the 1940s, enrollment was close to 1,500 students. In 1951, the school name was changed to Tennessee A&I State University, but would commonly be referred to as Tennessee State University or Tennessee State.
Tennessee State's women were well represented on the 1956 Olympic team, with the majority of the nine African American women coming from the Tennessee State track team. Tennessee State, a historically Black college, along with Tuskegee, presented Black women an opportunity to receive an education and participate in sport. These historically Black colleges were “pioneers in competitive sport opportunities for women long before the women's movement.”
2 When Coach Temple was asked about the problems of fielding a good women's team, he answered with, “We have to take an American girl with her powder and lipstick and develop her into a competitor. She has to be feminine and talented. This combination is hard to find.”
3 Despite the rising success of American women in track and field, the sport was still considered masculine and was marginalized in the sporting press, save for every four years with the Olympic Games bringing interest and attention to the sport. Temple, as part of his coaching responsibilities, felt he had the task of insuring that his women would not do anything to perpetuate the negative stereotypes about track and field and the masculinity of the participating women. For example, he instituted a dress code and would not allow the women to be photographed after a race until they had showered and changed into dress clothes.
By the time Wilma enrolled at Tennessee State in the fall of 1958, Coach Temple and the Tigerbelles were on top of the track and field world. African American women were dominating international track and field and were America's best chances against their Soviet counterparts. In 1957, at the AAU outdoor nationals, six Tigerbelles ran against each other in the finals of the 200-meter race. The next year, there were 10 Tigerbelles on scholarship, and all 10 qualified for the Pan-American Games team. That same year, Coach Temple led a team of American women, including seven Tigerbelles (Barbara Jones, Lucinda Williams, Margaret Mathews, Willye White, Martha Hudson, Annie Lois Smith, and Isabelle Daniels) on a European tour of track meets to Moscow, Warsaw, Budapest, and Athens.
4 Wilma missed out on the European competitions because she had just given birth to her daughter and was not able to run. Historian Susan Cahn explained that “by presenting a public image of well-dressed feminine composure, black sports advocates insisted in integrating African American athletes into standards of athletic femininity. This approach continued a tradition of African American resistance in which generations of black women had defended their femininity and sexual virtue against disparaging stereotypes by asserting their morality and respectability.”
5 Perhaps these ideas influenced Coach Temple's policy of not allowing his athletes to have children.
Only a few years prior, Ebony magazine had stated that Black female athletes owed their success to their male coaches, explaining that the lady tracksters' performances could never match those of their male counterparts. The magazine concluded that boys were learning “that a girl track star can be as feminine as the china-doll type.”
6 Cahn suggests that “when, after decades of media and organizational neglect, American track women suddenly found themselves under the international glare of Cold War athletic rivalries, a complicated matrix of racial and gender issues came to a head. A reservoir of racist beliefs about black women being deficient in femininity buttressed the masculine connotation of track and field. Throughout the Cold War era, the sport was dominated by African American and Soviet women. Thus two symbols of mannishness—black women and Russian ‘amazons’—stood in the foreground, impeding efforts to overhaul the sport's reputation.”
7 Under the glare of Cold War politics, African American female athletes enjoyed greater media attention and accolades, but at a price that compromised both their race and gender. On one hand, they faced racism from an American society divided by race and still segregated in schools, public facilities, and daily practices. On the other hand, they faced sexism in an American society that devalued their athletic accomplishments in a male dominated sport world, as well as expectations of females and femininity.
The dominance of African American women in track and field posed a problem for American promoters and sport advocates trying to revive “popular interest in a dying sport.” Cahn states that track and field promoters had two choices to help the sport; they could “incorporate black track women into approved concepts of athletic womanhood” or they could “minimize the presence and contributions of black women in order to create a more respectable image of the sport.”
8 It seemed clear that keeping African American women out of the sport would be difficult; they were America's best hopes for winning medals!
Coach Temple bought into the prescribed images for Black women in sport and did his best to help soften their image to fit into the accepted ideals of femininity. Temple explained, “None of my girls have any trouble getting boyfriends. I tell them that they are young ladies first, track girls second.”
9 His strategy paid off in many ways. One of the first lessons a Tigerbelle learned was that she was “a lady first” and a “track lady second.” Another one of Temple's sayings was “I don't want oxes, I want foxes.” Years later he explained his philosophy. “I wanted nice looking girls who took care of themselves who could also run. I had it in mind that if we went someplace, I wanted a stranger to wonder, ‘What do you young ladies do? Do you sing or are you a debating team?’ I wanted this because at that time, there was a real dilemma over women participating in sports. People used to say that if the girls got muscles they could never have babies. I was determined to overcome that kind of stuff. I was going to prove to the world that you could be feminine and still get the job done.”
10 To help achieve this Temple instituted three rules; his runners had to complete their college education, they had to be on time for everything, and there was a strictly defined coach–athlete relationship.
Davis marks this Tigerbelle era as an important break from the previous images of women's track stars, which had been viewed as “muscular, masculine women.”
11 To some Americans, having a child, as Wilma had done, confirmed her femininity and womanhood at a time when it was in question for many African American female athletes. At the same time, however, it reinforced ideas about poor Black females having children at too young an age. Wilma's role as a mother was never used to promote a feminine image in track. Perhaps because she bore her daughter without being married, which at the time did not fit into traditional ideas about family, femininity, and motherhood.
It was into this world of conflicting views on womanhood and athleticism that Wilma entered college as a mother and international athlete. She was no longer a high school runner at Coach Temple's summer program, she was a college athlete and an official Tennessee State Tigerbelle. This move to the college level was significant and carried new responsibilities. Coach Temple was very demanding on his athletes and made the athletes run an extra lap for every minute they were late to practice. Rudolph once overslept practice by 30 minutes and had to run 30 extra laps. The next day she was sitting on the track 30 minutes early.
Adjusting to college life was difficult for Wilma, especially balancing school work and running track. She was majoring in elementary education and had a minor in psychology. She had to keep up good grades to stay on the team. She frequently lost to her teammates and was frustrated with her inconsistent performances. At times, balancing everything was a challenge and Wilma considered quitting school until one day one of her professors, Mr. Knight, asked her to consider two things. First, he reminded her that her baby was in good hands with her family. He also pressed her to consider all the sacrifices she had made for track and wondered if she was really willing to throw all her hard work away. Wilma credits that conversation with her decision to stick things out and stay in school.
Wilma was surrounded by talented teammates, some of who had been her Olympic teammates, such as Margaret Mathews, Lucinda Williams, Isabelle Daniels, and Willye White. Margaret Mathews spoke to the conflicts the women faced when it came to the issue of femininity; “I found out you don't have to be pretty to be recognized, to be known, to be somebody. Some people are partial; some people like pretty people, attractive people. Others, if you have the talent, it doesn't matter; and that's how it was with Mrs. Morgan [her physical education teacher and coach]. She was never partial; she always gave us an equal chance and I think that's what gave me the incentive to really want to be somebody.”
12 She was referring to her high school coach Marian Armstrong-Perkins, who had been a chaperone for the Tigerbelle summer program and several U.S. women's teams. Willye White also admitted the tensions she felt as a female athlete; “It is pretty difficult being all female, you know, because you are out there on the track and you're in all the dirt and grime and grit doing the same thing the boys are doing, and you don't carry yourself as feminine as some girls would. You're not as dainty as they are because most times your feet hurt, you have sore muscles, and it's pretty difficult to be all woman out on the track. This is something that you just can't be; you gotta let yourself go, whereas the average women is constantly fixing her makeup or combing her hair and trying to look pretty. Well, when you're out on the track with makeup and you start sweating, it smears; and that makes you look worse. So what you do is your hard work and you look ugly out on the track and after the track meet is over you come back, fix yourself up, and then you're a pretty lady.”
13 Just as Coach Temple had his rules about postrace interviews and the appearance of his athletes, the Tigerbelles were also cognizant of the pressures they faced to appear feminine.
In addition to her 1956 Olympic teammates, other talented Tigerbelles running with Wilma at Tennessee State included Shirley Crowder and Barbara Jones. Shirley was from Temple, Georgia, and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School. Shirley, who a year earlier had lent Wilma her blue prom dress, did not make the 1956 Olympics team because she tripped over a hurdle at the Olympic Trials. Shirley, however, did win the 80-meter hurdle championship at the AAU outdoor meet in 1957.
14 Wilma and Shirley first met in the summer of 1955 when they both attended Coach Temple's summer program. Like Wilma, Shirley had been a star basketball player in high school.
Barbara Jones, also a Tigerbelle, had won a gold medal in the 4x100-meter relay for the United States in the 1952 Olympic Games. Barbara grew up in the South Side of Chicago and had run for the Catholic Youth Organization in Chicago. When she lost to three Tigerbelles at the 1956 Olympic Trials in the 100-meter race and failed to qualify for the Olympic team, Mae Faggs told her “The thing you need to do is come down to Tennessee State and learn what training is all about.”
15 So she did.
Running on the Tigerbelle track team was going well for Wilma. Wilma thought that she was even faster after having her baby. Still, she routinely lost races to her teammates and was inconsistent in her performances during her freshman and sophomore years due to injuries and illnesses. She finally was examined by a doctor and had a tonsillectomy. The tonsil infection had been bothering her for months and made training difficult. After the surgery, she regained her old form.
As a freshman in college, Wilma won the 50-yard dash in 6.2 seconds at the National Indoor AAU Track Championship held at Washington, D.C.'s National Guard Armory and was a leg of the second place 440-yard relay to help Tennessee State, with 61 1/2 total points, win the title easily over second place finishers, the Queen Mercurettes of New York and the Police Athletic League of New York, both with a mere 18 points.
16 In the summer of 1959, Wilma won the AAU title in the 100-yard dash. During her sophomore season, Wilma set two American records at the indoor AAU championships held in Chicago in April 1960 leading Tennessee State to their sixth consecutive national indoor title. She won the 50-yard dash, and set records in the 100-yard dash (11.1 seconds) and 220-yard dash (25.7 seconds), breaking former teammate Mae Faggs' 220-yard record of 25.9 seconds established in 1959.
Coach Temple was selected as the head coach for the women's track team 1958 and 1959 competitions between the United States and the Soviet Union, the 1959 Pan-American Games, and the 1960 Olympic Games. Eight Tigerbelles competed for the United States at the 1959 Philadelphia American-Soviet meet, and 10 Tigerbelles ran at the 1959 Pan-American Games, including Wilma. At the American-Soviet dual meet in Philadelphia, Wilma finished third in the 100-meter dash to her teammate Barbara Jones. At the Pan-American Games, Wilma's relay set a new meet record, though the real star of the meet was teammate Lucinda Williams, who, in addition to running on the relay, won the 100-meter dash and the 200-meter dash.
Wilma's goals were focused on making the 1960 Olympic track and field team and winning more medals, with hopes for a gold medal. The first step to meeting this goal was to perform well at the National AAU meet held in Corpus Christi, Texas. The best runners at the AAU meet would be invited to the Olympic Trials to be held a couple of weeks later at Texas Christian University. Wilma was set on qualifying in several events. Years later, two incidents stayed in Wilma's mind from the Nationals that year. First, her youngest sister, Charlene, the baby of the Rudolph family, was also scheduled to run, but became very sick. The second incident involved a bus driver who refused to drive the integrated American track team and walked off leaving the athletes to wait for another driver. Wilma and her teammates eventually made it to the meet and Wilma met several of her immediate goals, qualifying for several events at the Olympic Trials. She repeated her AAU title in the 100-yard dash. She was definitely ready for the Olympic Trials.
At the Olympic Trials, Wilma competed in the 100-meter and 200-meter races and the 4x100-meter relay. In the 200-meter race final, Wilma set a world record running a blazing 22.9 seconds to win and became the first American woman to hold a world record in a running event. Her record would stand for five years.
19 Coach Temple did not tell her about the record. Later that day, she found out from her teammates and celebrated both her world record and making her second Olympic team in all three events—the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes, and the 400-meter relay.
Those who had earned a spot on the Olympic team moved on to train at Kansas State University in Emporia, Kansas, just like they had done in Los Angeles four years earlier. The facilities in Emporia were top rate. This time, the coach of the team was none other than the Tigerbelle's own Ed Temple, who had several of his runners on the Olympic team. Fran Welch, the head coach at Emporia State College, was Coach Temple's assistant coach for the Olympics. They practiced three times a day the first week, cutting back to twice a day the second week, eventually practicing once a day during the last week of training. There were 18 women on the Olympic team; 11 of them were African American, and 8 of those 11 were from Tennessee State.
Wilma headed to the Games in Rome, Italy, that summer expecting to win three gold medals. She wrote, “Everything was in place for me, and all I had to do was deliver my end of it.”
20 Not everyone expected her to win three medals, however, least of all her teammates, who routinely beat her and were outstanding athletes hoping to win their own Olympic medals.
1. Dwight Lewis and Susan Thomas, A Will to Win (Mt. Juliet, TN: Cumberland Press, 1983), 2.
2. Yevonne R. Smith, “Women of Color in Society and Sport,” Quest (August 1992), 236–37.
3. Events and Discoveries, Sports Illustrated, 15 September 1958.
4. This would have been the summer of 1958. Wilma was not on the Pan-American team because she was unable to compete spending most of her senior year pregnant.
5. Susan Cahn, Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women's Sport (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 134.
6. Cahn, Coming on Strong, 134.
7. Cahn, Coming on Strong, 138.
8. Cahn, Coming on Strong, 133.
9. Cahn, Coming on Strong, 133.
10. Lewis and Thomas, A Will to Win, 116–17.
11. Michael D. Davis, Black American Women in Olympic Track and Field (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1992), 80.
12. Davis, Black American Women, 102.
13. Davis, Black American Women, 155–56.
14. Davis, Black American Women, 46–47.
15. Davis, Black American Women, 79.
16. “Tennessee A. and I. Women Gain National Indoor Track Crown,” New York Times, 25 January 1959, S1.
17. “Wilma Rudolph Sets 2 Records,” New York Times, 17 April 1960, S7.
18. Davis, Black American Women, 116.
19. Davis, Black American Women, 117.
20. Wilma Rudolph, with Martin Ralbovsky, Wilma: The Story of Wilma Rudolph (New York: Signet, 1977), 124.
Wilma Rudolph competed at the 1960 Olympic Games. This was her second Olympics, but it was the first time the games were televised around the world. This gave Wilma and her teammates increased media exposure. Library of Congress.
Wilma stands with her 1960 Olympic gold medal 4x100m relay teammates, Lucinda Williams, Barbara Jones, and Martha Hudson. Library of Congress.
Wilma enjoys welcome home celebrations with her parents, Blanche and Ed Rudolph. Getty Images.
Wilma shows off her medals with fellow Olympian and Tennessee State classmate, Ralph Boston. Getty Images.
Wilma is victorious at Madison Square Garden with a world record time. 1960. Library of Congress.
Wilma talks with President John F. Kennedy at the White House. The President said that he was honored to meet an Olympian. 1961. Library of Congress.
Wilma is pictured here on the set of the TV movie “Wilma,” with Piper Carter (who played Wilma, age 4). 1975. Photofest.