Remembering Wilma Rudolph, the “Queen of the Olympics”Roundup
tags: civil rights, African American history, Sports History, Olympic Games, track and field
Scott N. Brooks is the Director of Research at the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University. He is the author of Black Men Can’t Shoot (University of Chicago Press, 2009). Aram Goudsouzian is Professor of History at the University of Memphis. His books include King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution (University of California Press, 2010).
Vilma! Vilma! Vilma! On September 8, 1960, Rome’s Stadio Olimpico rumbled with exuberant cheers as the crowd celebrated the woman known as “the Tennessee Tornado” and “the Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” The Italian press called her “the Black Pearl.” The French dubbed her “the Black Gazelle.” The Russians considered her “the Queen of the Olympics.”
The woman was Wilma Rudolph. Earlier in these Olympic Games, she won the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes. Then, in the 400-meter relay, she fumbled the baton on the exchange, only to overtake West Germany’s Jutta Heine during a dramatic anchor-leg comeback. Sixty years ago this month, she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympic Games.
The significance of Rudolph’s achievement transcends the world of sports. Because of her childhood disability, she was cast as an exemplar of American pluck. Because of her gold medals, she was a powerful weapon in a cultural Cold War. Because of her appealing style, she became a darling of the mainstream press, challenging numerous stereotypes of Black womanhood.
It is, perhaps, too easy to praise Rudolph as an individual—someone with “inner stuff” or the heart of a champion. But if we place her into wider social context, we appreciate her as a representative of tangled struggles. She was an athlete, a woman, a poor country girl from Clarksville, Tennessee, and she was Black.
Rudolph captured the world’s fancy by negotiating a delicate balance. Sidestepping threats to masculine power, she vowed to never race men. She wore skirts and high heels. Reporters called her “willowy” and “very feminine.” The pop culture stereotypes of Black women consisted of bossy “Sapphires,” beefy “Mammies,” and bewitching “Jezebels.” Rudolph, by contrast, wore her athletic grace with a coat of respectability.
In his book Negro Firsts in Sports, which highlighted Black athletes as ambassadors of racial progress, A.S. “Doc” Young celebrated Rudolph as “the first Negro woman to draw worldwide praise for her beauty.” This, he added, “is indisputable proof that ‘things are getting better’ for Negroes!”
But the barriers to racial progress stayed high, even for celebrities such as Rudolph. In May 1963, Rudolph joined 300 activists seeking service at a segregated drive-in restaurant in Clarksville. They returned the next day, but the restaurant had locked up. A mob of white youths heckled them. “I just can’t believe it,” said Rudolph, “remember the reception I had here in 1960?”