Chapter 16
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Blazing the Trail

The story of the TSU Tigerbelles’ triumph over discrimination

Aime Alley Card’s extraordinary book, The Tigerbelles: Olympic Legends from Tennessee State, describes the women’s track and field program at Nashville’s Tennessee State University from its humble beginnings to the triumphant performance of Wilma Rudolph and her teammates at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Rudolph won individual gold in the 100-meter and 200-meter events there and shared the same prize in the 4×100-meter relay with her teammates Lucinda Williams, Barbara Jones, and Martha Hudson. Card describes their performance in Rome as “the moment when the world was forced to sit up and acknowledge that women can run.”

Rudolph’s story alone is almost unbelievable, as she overcame childhood polio to be declared the fastest woman in the world and the first American woman to take home three Olympic gold medals in track and field in a single year. But Card also shines a spotlight on Rudolph’s teammates, friends, and especially her beloved coach, Ed Temple, whose journeys are equally admirable and, in many ways, crucial to Rudolph’s success. In Temple’s case, his recruitment of athletes with “pure hearts and mental toughness” and his demanding training disciplines helped propel 40 women to the Olympics over the course of his decades-long career at TSU.

From the beginning, the Tigerbelles were disrespected and underfunded because of their chosen sport, their race, and their gender. But track and field made up for what it lacked in glamour by being the only college sport that allowed desegregated competition and provided opportunities for women to participate. Forced to train on a substandard track with inadequate equipment under grueling conditions, the women persevered. Without a team bus or the money to pay for food or accommodations on the road, the athletes traveled to competitions by station wagon, driving all night and packing brown-bag meals. “It seemed that nothing was in their favor,” Card writes, “but still they won.”

While their contemporaries in Nashville were staging sit-ins at downtown lunch counters and picketing unfair business practices under constant threat of violence and imprisonment, the Tigerbelles were forced to find other ways to help the Civil Rights Movement or risk losing their scholarships — their only chance at a college education — not to mention their athletic careers. Temple believed the Tigerbelles could do more for their communities through their achievements as Black athletes and the international attention they attracted. But they were far from immune to racially motivated injustice. At an event in Texas, a bus driver refused to drive Black and white athletes to the meet on the same bus. Precious warm-up time was lost until a substitute driver could be found. Despite the affront, Rudolph set a world record in the 200-meter of 22.9 seconds later that day. It was the fastest time ever run by a woman.

At the Olympic trials in Abilene, Texas, a week later, seven women from the Tigerbelles made the national team, an unprecedented number from a single program. And Ed Temple was chosen as head coach of the U.S. Olympic Women’s Track and Field Team. After the games, Temple wryly observed, “The women’s team has repeatedly been looked on as the second-class team while the men were catered to and received the best of everything. Funny, every time they announce each country’s total number of medals, our men’s and women’s medals were all added up together.”

By employing an oral history format, with copious first-person accounts of the events she chronicles, Card imbues this inspiring story with an immediacy and intensity that is hard to resist. Along with extensive notes, the book includes wonderful photos — many from the Temple family archives — as well as a “Legacy” chapter detailing the athletes’ accomplishments after graduation. Many of them went on to earn advanced degrees and work in the fields of education and amateur athletics — a tribute to Temple’s often-repeated advice to his athletes: “Track opens doors,” he said, “and education keeps them open.”

Those already familiar with the history of American track and field, as well as those who have never heard of Wilma Rudolph or the other talented women introduced here, will gain much from reading about their triumph of talent, sacrifice, and sheer will over ignorance, bigotry, and hatred. “Temple and the Tigerbelles were ahead of their time,” Card writes. “They were trailblazers. They were legends.”

Blazing the Trail

Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.