For a generation, Black Georgia women dominated women’s track and field

From 1948 to 1972, Georgia women were members of every U.S. Olympic track-and-field team.

Wyomia Tyus, a 19-year-old raised on a Griffin dairy farm, won the women’s 100 meters at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Her best friend, Edith McGuire of Atlanta, was second.

It was the first time Tyus had outrun McGuire, the favorite in the 100 and 200 meters. McGuire was pegged as the next Wilma Rudolph, the American hero who swept those events in the 1960 Melbourne Olympics.

Ignoring her own shattered dreams, McGuire started the celebration between the two fastest women on earth, running up from behind and hugging her fellow Georgian. “You won, Tyus!” McGuire shouted. “You did it!”

“That bonded us for life,” Tyus told the AJC in an interview this month from Los Angeles. “She was just as happy about that as I was. That’s a great friend.”

Three days later, McGuire won the 200 meters — a full second faster than Rudolph in 1960 — and reinforced Georgia’s legacy of speed. Tyus and McGuire then won silver medals in the 4x100 relay.

Now in their 70s and living in different parts of California, Tyus and McGuire still converse several times weekly by phone, sometimes reflecting on that October in Tokyo. “We’ve known each other since I was 15, she was 16, and we still talk all the time,” Tyus said. “We try to settle the world’s problems. We share.”

Tyus and McGuire were leading ladies during a remarkable generation in Georgia’s sports history.

From 1948 to 1972, Georgia women were members of every U.S. Olympic track-and-field team. The 12 of them — all Black women who attended all-Black schools during segregation — won nine gold, three silver and two bronze medals.

Alice Coachman of Albany in 1948 and Mildred McDaniel of Atlanta in 1956 won gold medals in the high jump. Coachman was the first Black woman to win an Olympic gold medal in any sport. Margaret Matthews of Atlanta in 1956 and Anna Smith of Atlanta in 1960 were Olympic long jumpers. Shirley Crowder of Atlanta in 1960 was a hurdler.

Then there were the sprinters. Georgia was home then to the fastest women in the world.

At least one Georgia woman qualified in the 100 meters, track-and-field’s marquee event, from 1952 through 1972. As it is today, Olympic qualifiers had to be among the three best in their events to make the U.S. team. During those six Olympics, Georgians secured eight of the 18 berths in the 100 meters.

Those Georgia sprinters were Catherine Hardy of Carrollton in 1952, Isabelle Daniels of Jakin and Lucinda Williams of Savannah in 1956, Martha Hudson of McRae in 1960, Tyus and McGuire in 1964, Tyus in 1968 and Mattline Render of Newnan in 1972. Also notable was Lula Mae Hymes, an Atlantan and Booker T. Washington High graduate who set the world record in the 100 meters in 1939 but never got the chance as the 1940 and 1944 Olympics were canceled during World War II.

How Georgia became a hotbed for women’s track

The Georgia High School Association didn’t hold track-and-field state meets for girls until 1968. But the Georgia Interscholastic Association, which governed high school sports for Black schools during segregation, held girls state meets as far back as the 1940s, usually in Fort Valley.

Historically Black colleges, principally Tennessee State in Nashville, embraced women’s track and field. Ed Temple, coach of TSU’s famous Tigerbelles, offered a work-study program for women that amounted to rare full scholarships. He developed 40 Olympians and won 13 team national titles.

“Mr. Temple would always come south — Georgia, Florida, Alabama — when they had their state meets; that’s how he recruited his girls,” said Tyus, who was discovered running for Griffin’s Fairmont High. ”That’s where he saw me. It was those major meets.”

The best were invited to Tennessee State’s summer camps. Temple’s Georgia scout was Marian Armstrong-Perkins, who coached basketball and track at Atlanta’s Howard High School and assisted at Temple’s camps. Three of the 12 Georgia Olympians of this era — McDaniel, Matthews and Smith — were Howard graduates nurtured by Armstrong-Perkins.

Crowder, the 1960 Olympic hurdler from Atlanta, said Georgia’s history inspired her. She knew Hardy, the state’s first Olympic sprinter, and high-jump gold medalist McDaniel from Howard. Crowder, who attended Washington High, became Rudolph’s roommate for three years at Tennessee State.

“I was aspiring to do some of the things they did when I realized I had some ability,” said Crowder, 81, who later made a career teaching and coaching girls track in Atlanta Public Schools. “We all tried to emulate persons that came before us who had succeeded.”

Tyus met McGuire at the Tuskegee Relays when Tyus was 15. She talked there with Temple, who invited her to camp. Tyus admits she wasn’t as versed as Crowder in Georgia’s tradition. When she got off the train that summer in Nashville, Temple and Rudolph greeted her. It was 1961, and Rudolph had just become the first woman to win three gold medals in a Summer Olympics.

“I hadn’t heard of her,” Tyus said. “That night, the other young women (campers), there were about 25 or 30 of us, they were saying, ‘Did you see Wilma Rudolph?’ I thought, ‘Who is that?’ ”

Soon Tyus would know Rudolph well, and the rapidly improving Tyus and McGuire influenced Rudolph’s retirement before the ’64 Games. Temple wanted his Tigerbelles to go out on top. Tyus followed the script in 1968 after setting the world record in the 100 meters in Mexico City and becoming the first person to repeat as Olympic champion in the event.

Render in 1972 was the last in the string of Georgia qualifiers in the 100. The only Georgia woman to qualify since has been Gwen Torrence in 1992 and 1996.

By the 1970s, the Tigerbelles were being challenged by other, bigger college programs. The AIAW began holding women’s national championships in 1969, broadening the sport’s reach. Desegregation and Title IX opened opportunities for women in all sports. Track was no longer the only viable option for athletic Georgia women.

Women and Blacks also began to get more recognition. When Florence Griffith Joyner won the Olympic 100 meters in 1988, she made the covers of Sports Illustrated, Newsweek and Time magazines.

Finalists of the women's 100-meter during dash final of the Summer Olympic event Oct. 16, 1964 in Tokyo. American Wyomia Tyus cuts the ribbon in 11.4 sec. Second was fellow American Edith McGuire (second from left) and third Ewa Klobukowsk, of Poland (top right). Others are Marilyn White, of U.S. (extreme left), Marilyn Black, of Australia (8), and Miguelina Cobian, of Cuba (34). (AP)
Finalists of the women's 100-meter during dash final of the Summer Olympic event Oct. 16, 1964 in Tokyo. American Wyomia Tyus cuts the ribbon in 11.4 sec. Second was fellow American Edith McGuire (second from left) and third Ewa Klobukowsk, of Poland (top right). Others are Marilyn White, of U.S. (extreme left), Marilyn Black, of Australia (8), and Miguelina Cobian, of Cuba (34). (AP)

Credit: Associated Press

Credit: Associated Press

‘For the love of the sport, not for the glory’

In 1964, when Tyus won her first Olympic title, The Atlanta Constitution ran a photo of Tyus leaning to touch the tape ahead of McGuire. The caption said, “Wyomia Tyus nips Edith McGuire for 1-2 Georgia finish.” But it wasn’t on the front page, or even the first page of the sports section. And the article wrapping up the Olympic events that day led with news of the men’s 1,500-meter heats.

Tyus recalls coming home to Atlanta on the same train as McGuire after the ’64 Games. People met them at the station and said they’d have a parade for them, but it went only into the Black neighborhoods.

“It was the Black people honoring us,” Tyus said. “Those were the times. I look at myself as a pioneer, but sometimes pioneers don’t get the accolades. I wasn’t doing it for all that. It was for the education and to make me a better person. But of course, we have to look at the facts. There were obstacles that shouldn’t have been there. We were still drinking from different water fountains.’'

Crowder echoed Tyus’ sentiments.

“No, it didn’t bother me; I was participating for the love of the sport, not for the glory,” she said. “The only time it bothered me was when we traveled. We couldn’t stop and eat anywhere. Persons at our school had to prepare our meals so we can make the journey.”

Tyus always said she competed for those closest to her, her family, school, teammates and coaches, not so much for her country or hometown. But she related a moving moment in her 2018 autobiography, “Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story,” about her relationship to her hometown, which she still frequently visits.

In the 1990s, Spalding County bought land the size of 125 football fields and planned a park. When completed in 1999, it was dedicated in the hometown hero’s honor. Wyomia Tyus Olympic Park now has a 3-acre lake and several baseball and soccer fields.

Dozens of people attended, including Temple and many of Tyus’ former Tigerbelle teammates. McGuire, who told Tyus she was out of the country, was there to surprise her. Tyus’ mother, still living then, was there with many family members, including Tyus’ children and husband.

“I was just totally floored and shocked at the same time,” Tyus said. “They even said to me, ‘We have not recognized you as we should’ve done. That’s why we have the park.’”

As a Tigerbelle and Olympian, Tyus was the quiet one. McGuire was the talker. Even when Tyus did make a statement, it wasn’t always heard, as in 1968, after Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously protested racism with raised fists on the medal stand. Tyus spoke out publicly in support of the two and wore black shorts in competition. Hardly anyone noticed, a symbol of the times for female athletes, especially Black women.

Temple always told Tyus she needed to talk more. As the years passed, she did. She believes now that her story is worth telling as much as ever.

“I think it’s definitely important for Georgia to know the history, especially the young people, to see what Georgia women have done,” Tyus said. “When I was competing, there was a lack of encouragement for girls to get involved and be good. ‘Do that, but don’t sweat, don’t have muscles.’ For Georgia’s young women, if they see that we did it in the ’60s with very few opportunities, they know they can do it today no matter the circumstances.’'

Georgia’s 12 Olympians from a golden era

Georgia women were members of every U.S. Olympic track-and-field team from 1948 to 1972. The 12 won nine gold, three silver and two bronze medals. Shirley Crowder and Mattline Render still live in Georgia. Margaret Matthews and Annie Smith are now in Tennessee. Martha Hudson is in Ohio, Lucinda Williams in Florida. Wyomia Tyus and Edith McGuire are in California. Alice Coachman, Catherine Hardy, Mildred McDaniel and Isabelle Daniels have died.

Year Olympian High school College Event
1948 Alice Coachman Madison (Albany) Tuskegee/Albany State High jump (G)
1952 Catherine Hardy Carroll Co. Training (Carrollton) Fort Valley State 100m; 200m; 4x100 (G)
1956 Mildred McDaniel Howard (Atlanta) Tuskegee High jump (G)
1956 Isabelle Daniels Carver (Jakin) Tennessee State 100m; 4x100 (B)
1956 Margaret Matthews Howard (Atlanta) Tennessee State Long jump; 4x100 (B)
1956 Lucinda Williams Woodville (Savannah) Tennessee State 100m
1960 200m; 4x100 (G)
1960 Annie Smith Howard (Atlanta) Tennessee State Long jump
1960 Shirley Crowder Washington (Atlanta) Tennessee State 80m hurdles
1960 Martha Hudson Twin City (McRae) Tennessee State 100m; 4x100 (G)
1964 Edith McGuire Archer (Atlanta) Tennessee State 100m (S); 200m (G); 4x100 (S)
1964 Wyomia Tyus Fairmount (Griffin) Tennessee State 100m (G); 4x100 (S)
1968 100m (G); 200m; 4x100 (G)
1972 Mattline Render Central (Newnan) Tennessee State 100m; 4x100

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