Alice Coachman was the first Black woman to win an Olympic gold medal. If the 1940 or ’44 Games were not canceled, she might have done so sooner. Or, Lula Hymes and Jean Lane might have beat her to it.
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 023, June 2020
By Liam Boylan-Pett
Photo courtesy of Wilberforce University
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Lula Hymes propelled herself across the track, her spikes clawing through the cinders. Her stride, one journalist wrote, was like Jesse Owens’—short, quick, powerful. Hymes was a junior studying home economics at the Tuskegee Institute, an all-Black private college in Tuskegee, Alabama. The 20-year-old played basketball, tennis, and baseball, too, but on this day, she was competing at the 1937 Amateur Athletics Union Track and Field Championships at Trenton Central High School in New Jersey.
With 7,500 spectators watching on an unseasonably hot September day, Hymes sprinted along the sun-soaked track. All it took was 6.8 seconds, and Hymes was done, crossing the finish line in a dead heat with Claire Isicson, a 16-year-old from Brooklyn. Initially, the race official declared Hymes the winner, but two other officials overturned the decision, giving the victory and national championship to Isicson, who was white.
Coach Christine Evans Petty did not file a protest even though Isicson’s coach said he believed Hymes had won. She did not have time for that. Neither did Hymes, who was also in the long jump and was the anchor on Tuskegee’s 4 x 100-meter relay team. Even if Hymes was first, the points she earned for second helped in Tuskegee’s chase for the team title.
Her win in the long jumped helped even more. So did Cora Gaines’ win in the 80-meter hurdles and second-place finish in the high jump. Florence Wright threw her way to second-place finishes in the shot put and discus throw. Mabel Smith was fourth in the 200, and Malissa Fitzpatrick was second in the baseball throw. Jessie Abbot was fourth in the 100. Then, with Hymes anchoring, the 4 x 100 team finished second by a yard. Tuskegee women scored in every event but the javelin, where they did not field a competitor.
The year before, the team finished second. On September 26, 1937, Tuskegee scored 33 points to win the A.A.U. National Championship, easily outdistancing second place with 14 points. Tuskegee became the first all-Black team to win A.A.U. title. They were just getting started.
Before Louisiana State University dominated N.C.A.A. track in the 1980s and ’90s, and before the Tennessee State University Tigerbelles, led by Wilma Rudolph, set the gold-standard for track and field in the 1960s, there was the Tuskegee Institute. From 1937 to ’48, Tuskegee won every A.A.U. Championship save 1943.
In 1939, Alice Coachman enrolled. At 16, Coachman was a revelation. From 1939 to ’48, she won ten consecutive A.A.U. high jump national titles. She also took home national championships in the 50-meter dash, the 100 meters, and the 4 x 100-meter relay. Donned the “Tuskegee Flash,” Coachman won the high jump at the 1948 Olympics in London, breaking the Olympic record while becoming the first Black woman to win an Olympic gold medal.
Had it not been for World War II, it is very likely Coachman would have won more than the one gold. She was a favorite to win in 1940 and ’44, too.
She was not the only Black athlete to miss out on a chance at Olympic glory.
Hymes, who set the world record in the 100 meters in 1939 and would retire from the sport before the Olympics returned in 1948, never even got the chance.
Neither did Jean Lane, a star at all-Black Wilberforce University in Ohio who burst onto the national scene in 1940 as a 17-year-old.
It would not have been a given for Hymes or Lane. Add in Stella Walsh, the established Polish star who lived in the U.S., and the 1940 Olympic 100-meter dash had the potential to be a memorable race.
With the Games canceled, the 1940 A.A.U. National Championships in Ocean City, New Jersey, would have to do.
“I was at the high jump,” Alice Coachman said in a taped interview from 2004, remembering old track meets at Tuskegee in the late 1930s and early ’40s. She and Hymes were speaking with historian and author Pamela Gundy. Coachman continued, “and Lula would get that baton in her hand. And no matter how far she was behind, when it came to that anchor, nuh, uh, it was all over with. She was coming.”
People came out to watch Lula Hymes run, especially at Tuskegee. Beginning in 1927, the Tuskegee Relays were one of the first track invitationals for Black colleges. What football and track coach Cleveland “Cleve” Abbott was doing for the university and the athletic department would impact the country for years to come. This was the Jim Crow South, and Tuskegee developed itself as a premiere institution for Black students and athletes. The Tuskegee Relays were more than just a track meet. The weekend was a carnival and celebration, filled with galas and events and races for high school and college athletes.
By the time Hymes was racing, the Tuskegee Relays already had a reputation as one of the best meets in the country. As Hymes and Coachman would later tell it, 30 to 40 teams from all over the U.S. bussed in each year for the two-day meet. Women would begin running at 8 a.m. Friday, racing all day, and the men would do the same thing Saturday. Fans filled the stands at the Alumni Bowl on campus. And everyone paid attention when Hymes was on the track.
Hymes had always been a runner. Growing up in Atlanta, she liked doing anything outdoors. As a kid, she would go outside by herself to Washington Park or the Chattahoochee River. She loved running. She did not train, she simply ran and jumped around on rocks and through the river, splashing as she went.
At Booker T. Washington High School, she joined the track team. She was good, she said, but not great. She planned to go to college in the Atlanta area, and would likely run. After racing at the Tuskegee Relays as a senior, however, she knew she needed to be in Alabama.
It was different at Tuskegee. Working with Coach Abbott and Coach Petty, Hymes focused on her classes—she wanted to be a home demonstration agent—and her athletics. Soon, she had blossomed into one of Tuskegee’s best. After winning the long jump and nearly winning the 50-meter dash and 4 x 100-meter relay in 1937, in 1938 Hymes won the 100 meters (redeeming her previous “loss” to Isicson), then defended her title in the long jump and anchored Tuskegee to a win in the 4 x 100. Tuskegee won its second straight A.A.U. National Championship on the back of Hymes’ three victories.
The next year, Alice Coachman joined the team. “Four or five of us would always try to beat Lula, but she was just so fast,” Coachman said at an event in Tuskegee in 2008, shaking her head in awe as she spoke. Sitting next to Hymes, she continued: “She would come off those blocks like lightning. By the time I’d be ready to start, she’d already be 5 feet ahead of me.”
In May 1939, Hymes matched the world record in the 100 meters, running 11.5 seconds on her home track in Tuskegee. Along with Coachman, Hymes led the Tuskegee team to its third consecutive team crown at the 1939 A.A.U. meet.
Hymes was big news outside of Tuskegee, covered like a celebrity in African American newspapers, magazines, and journals. Hollywood scouts even took notice of Hymes. In May 1940, a few producers interviewed her and offered her a part in a play in which she would portray an athlete. She turned down the opportunity, as she still wanted to compete in the A.A.U. championships that summer—she needed to remain an amature. She was a popular pick to make the 1940 Olympic Team. However, after the Winter War in Finland, the Olympics, which had already been moved from their original host city of Tokyo, were officially canceled. In that 2004 interview with Gundy, Hymes was asked about not being able to compete in the 1940 Olympics. “I was supposed to go to Finland,” she said and trailed off. “But they canceled it.”
So, with no Olympics or Hollywood in sight, Hymes set about putting together another great track season. She was, after all, coming off three straight years of successful runs at the A.A.U. championships. The Atlanta Constitution would even call her “America’s greatest girl track and field athlete.”
At the 1940 Tuskegee Relays, however, 17-year-old Jean Lane of Wilberforce University would have something to say about that.
“There was that girl from Wilberforce,” Coachman said in the interview with Gundy. “She beat you one time. She came out of nowhere, and beat you, right?”
“I was getting tired,” Hymes said and laughed. “But I don’t know where she came from.”
“She blew everybody out, didn’t she?” Coachman laughed, too.
That girl from Wilberforce was Jean Lane.
Born in Cincinnati, Lane grew up in Wilberforce, just outside of Dayton. Her father, Dr. J. Aubrey Lane, was very involved at the university as a dean and, eventually, majordomo of Wilberforce’s male student body. He worked as a veterinarian, bacteriologist, horticulturist, plain farmer, and sports executive. He was a founder and organizer of the Midwest Athletic Association, a conference for other Black schools like Wilberforce. Jean Lane was by her dad’s side for athletic activities around campus. So, it was no surprise she gravitated toward sports.
Not that Lane had a one-track mind. She sang in the choir and was involved with the student government and council. The track, however, was the long-legged athlete’s favorite place.
While Hymes’ stride was compared to Jesse Owens’, descriptions of Lane’s effortless gait sound more like Allyson Felix. “Apparently she just glides along,” William A. Brower wrote in a profile of Lane in the 1941 edition of Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life.
Her long legs carried her to multiple wins in high school races in Ohio. She reportedly ran a remarkable 5.8 seconds in the 50-yard dash as a senior at Cedarville High School. Not that many heard about it.
Track in those days was more of a southern sport. Tuskegee was the standard, especially when it came to Black athletes. Lane wanted to be a part of it, and traveled to Tuskegee in May 1940 as the sole member of the Wilberforce women’s team to test herself against Lula Hymes, who many were calling the best runner in the U.S.
Lane made an abrupt introduction. Racing in the famous Alumni Bowl of Tuskegee, she jumped out to a lead at the gun and never looked back, pulling away from Hymes to win the 100 meters by a few yards, all while wearing her signature wire-framed glasses. The crowd fell nearly silent. “The spectators … were astounded that the little 17-year-old flash from the Ohio school had taken the title from Tuskegee’s phantom of the cinderpath,” the Baltimore Afro-American reported.
Lane was not done yet. She won the 50-meter dash easily, then tripled back in the 200 and took the crown there, too. She tied the meet record in the 50 and set the mark in the 200, running 26.0 seconds.
She surprised Alice Coachman and Lula Hymes that day, but Hymes would be ready for her in Ocean City for the A.A.U. National Championships in two months.
It was more than a two-person race, though. Along with the world-record holder Hymes and the up-and-comer Lane, Stella Walsh, who had won the 100 meters at the 1932 Olympics for Poland, would be there, too.
Dr. J. Aubrey Lane stood near the finish line at Carey Stadium in Ocean City, New Jersey, on July 6, 1940, at the A.A.U. National Track and Field Championships. A sea breeze brought in the smell of saltwater, the ocean only a block from the finish line. Dr. Lane looked through the viewfinder on his camera, taking photos of his daughter’s race. In their respective lanes, Lula Hymes, Jean Lane, and Stella Walsh looked straight ahead to the finish line—100 meters from a national title, the biggest crown to win in a year without the Olympic Games.
Each had a reason to believe they would walk away from the race victorious.
Hymes had set the world record the year before. Lane had gone to Tuskegee and dominated Hymes on her home track, and then had set a world record in the 100 yards in June. Walsh, meanwhile, was the most established of the three. Then 29, she had won gold in the 100 meters in 1932 and silver in 1936. She had set multiple world records in the 100, 200, and the long jump. She was not an American citizen (she would become one in 1947), but had lived in the U.S. since she was 3 months old. Training with the Polish Olympic Women’s Club of Cleveland, she was the reigning champion in the long jump and the 200 meters. She was, by many counts, the best sprinter in the world in the 1930s.
But as the race official raised the starting pistol and told the runners to take their mark, those stats were trivial. Nor did it matter that this would be the greatest 100-meter race of 1940, a de facto Olympic final. When the gun fired, the three women all burst forward with the five other competitors.
Hymes moved across the ground in a shuffle, her quick, short stride scooting her forward. Walsh was more powerful, each step propelling her toward the finish. Lane’s long legs moved like a gazelle’s, each step touching the ground for a millisecond before bouncing up and away.
From the gun Lane stayed even with the explosive starts of Hymes and Walsh. Entering her full stride about 30 meters in, Lane picked up the pace. By the halfway point, she had established a lead on the field. There would be no answer. The race was over.
The 17-year-old from Wilberforce was on another level. Lane powered away over the last half of the race, her lead extending as she went. Walsh and Hymes strained to keep up, but they were no match. By the time Lane crossed the finish line, her lead was 5 meters.
In 1940, Jean Lane, a 17-year-old who was the only woman on her track team at Wilberforce University, won the U.S. national championship in commanding fashion, running 12.0 seconds. Stella Walsh finished second and Lula Hymes was third. Walsh, hands to knees at the finish, seemed inconsolable. Lane, however, picked her up and hugged her. They had more races to run that day, as did Hymes.
Lane took the 50 meters as well. Walsh won the 200 and the long jump (where Hymes finished fifth). And Hymes anchored Tuskegee to a win in the 4 x 100-meters. Tuskegee won its fourth consecutive A.A.U. National Championship.
Had there been an Olympic Games that summer, Jean Lane would have been the favorite for gold. Hymes would have been there for the U.S., and Walsh would have represented Poland. The three would have faced off once more. Had the results been the same, Lane would have been the first Black woman to win an Olympic gold.
Instead, that first would have to wait until Alice Coachman would take the high jump in 1948.
In 1932, Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes were supposed to become the first Black women to compete for the U.S. Track and Field Team at the Olympic Games. The 1928 Games were the first to include women in the Olympics, and four years later, Pickett and Stokes were in the pool to run the 4 x 100-meter relay. On the train, Pickett, 17, and Stokes, 18, had to stay in separate areas and could not dine with their teammates. At one point, Babe Didrikson tossed a pitcher of ice water on the two as they slept. At the Games, the two Black women were replaced by women in the 4 x 100 who had finished behind them at the Olympic Trials. That team, without Pickett or Stokes, won gold. Not only did they not get to compete in 1932, a lesser team won without them.
Pickett would go on to run in the 80-meter hurdles in Berlin in 1936, becoming the first Black athlete from the U.S. to compete in the Olympics. She fell over a hurdle in the second round and did not advance to the finals.
When the Olympics were next held in 1948, the U.S. Women’s Track and Field Team looked different.
“It’s remarkable to think about the Olympics preceding 1948,” Dr. Amira Rose Davis says. She is an assistant professor of History and African American Studies at Penn State University and is currently writing her book manuscript, “Can’t Eat a Medal”: The Lives and Labors of Black Women Athletes in the Age of Jim Crow. “There are two Black women in 1932 and ’36 that come from integrated training spaces,” Davis, who is also a host of the Burn It All Down pocast, continues. “Then, you basically have eight years off because of the canceled games and you come back in 1948 and the sprint squad for the U.S. women has nine Black athletes. And famously the one U.S. woman who wins gold is a negro girl from a negro school.”
Davis says that the Tuskegee Institute created the blueprint for a successful athletic program, and in a short period of time. If one were not paying attention to the A.A.U. meets, it would be jarring to see a team dominated by Black athletes on the Olympic Team in 1948. “That 1940 race is really important,” Davis says, “because it demonstrates the shifting of power dynamics. They don’t have that on the world stage yet, but it’s coming. And, and from that point now, whether it’s A.A.U or Pan Am or the Olympics, there’s just utter domination from Black girls from Black schools.”
In February 2019, U.S.A.T.F. tweeted a poll asking who was the first African American to win an Olympic gold medal. Of the 267 votes, an overwhelming majority (63.4 percent) picked Wilma Rudolph. Only 15.9 percent were correct in picking Alice Coachman.
Sometimes, being the first isn’t enough to be remembered.
In 1940, Jean Lane ran away from Stella Walsh and Lula Hymes to win the national championship in the 100-meter dash. She did not have a chance to reach the pinnacle of the sport at the Olympic Games. She did not have a chance to become the “first.”
Her story is not well documented. Unless, that is, you look a little closer. For this story, I relied on newspaper articles from the 1930s and ’40s, along with histories and recordings housed digitally at libraries. While “mainstream” newspapers like The New York Times focused more on the white athletes, African American run newspapers and magazines were different.
“The Black press were constantly uplifting these women as great examples of race pride,” Davis says.
Reading through old editions of the Baltimore Afro-American, the Chicago Defender, the Philadelphia Tribune, or the Atlanta Daily World, Lane and Hymes were celebrities. As William Brower wrote in his profile of Lane in Opportunity in 1941, “‘Mercurial Maiden’ isn’t merely idle alliteration [for Lane]. It’s an apt description of the rare swiftness of this young lady who, though already a performer of proven merit, seems to be on the threshold of carving a deathless niche in the chronograph of women in the field of track.”
Jean Lane would not run much past 1942. She earned her master’s degree from Wayne University in Detroit in 1949 and taught at high schools in the Detroit area. She died in 2005, according to Ancestry.com, but I was unable to discover an obituary.
Lula Hymes, too, did not run after 1942. She also became a teacher, guiding students in home economics and physical education at Carver Jr. High School in Bessemer, Alabama, and Lincoln Junior High in Kansas. She worked many years at the V.A. Hospital in Tuskegee. She died in 2016.
Jean Lane and Lula Hymes are not as well remembered as Wilma Rudolph or Alice Coachman. That does not change their impact. Track and Field went through significant changes in the 1930s. It was a sport where Black women could find a space and make a mark.
Lane and Hymes not only filled that space, they set the tone.