Rudolph, Wilma Glodean

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Rudolph, Wilma Glodean

(b. 23 June 1940 in Saint Bethlehem, Tennessee; d. 12 November 1994 in Brentwood, Tennessee), athlete, executive, and winner of three Olympic gold medals.

Rudolph was the twentieth of twenty-two children of Eddie B. Rudolph and Blanche Pettus. Her father already had fourteen children when he married Blanche. While Wilma was an infant, her parents moved the family to Kellogg Street in nearby Clarksville. Eddie worked on the railroad and as a handyman. He and Blanche, who worked as a maid in homes of white families, raised the children in a disciplined Baptist family with a love of education.

Rudolph was a premature infant, who suffered many childhood diseases: pneumonia, scarlet fever, and then polio. With her mother, she often rode the segregated bus to Nashville to receive medical treatments. She was unable to walk until fitted with a leg brace at the age of eight. But her condition improved rapidly, and by eleven she was playing basketball barefoot. She studied at the Cobb School for Negroes, where her teachers gradually transformed Rudolph into a self-confident person, encouraging her to excel in life without any excuses. At the new all-black Burt High School, Rudolph participated in basketball and track. At age thirteen, six feet tall and weighing only eighty-nine pounds, she won all her races at 50,75,100, and 200 meters. As a basketball player she scored over 800 points during her sophomore year of high school alone.

In 1954 at the Negro Schools Championship game in Nashville, a referee named Edward Stanley Temple noticed the skinny-legged youngster. Temple was the women’s track coach at Tennessee State University (TSU) in Nashville, and he invited Rudolph to attend his summer track camp, where he had the girls run five miles a day on the university’s farm roads, which helped build endurance and confidence. Mae Faggs, a five-foot-tall Olympic medalist at TSU helped Coach Temple to develop and chaperone young Rudolph. Students nicknamed the girls “Mutt and Jeff.” Copying Rudolph’s former high school coach, Clinton Gray, others affectionately called Rudolph “skeeter” because of her tall, skinny physique and quick “movements like a mosquito.” Rudolph recalled: “I remember the year 1954 when I had just begun to find out that young girls were involved in sports.” That year the fourteen-year-old Rudolph accompanied her high school track team to a meet at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and, although she did not win any of her events, she was emboldened by the spectacle of women competing.

In 1955 Rudolph returned to Temple’s summer camp. In August the team participated in the National Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) races in Philadelphia, where Rudolph won all her races. They had to travel in automobiles, take along sack lunches from the university’s cafeteria, and sleep wherever they could in the Jim Crow South. In October Rudolph accompanied Temple and five of his runners to Washington, D.C., for the U.S. Olympic team trials. TSU became the first institution to have six members qualify for Olympic competition; it was the first time that all four members of the American women’s relay team originated from the same university. They won four bronze medals and one silver at the 1956 games in Melbourne, Australia.

Rudolph became a student at TSU in the fall of 1958, when some work aid was provided to pay the tuition and fees. (TSU offered neither scholarships for the athletes nor even a decent university coaching salary for Temple.) Training facilities were limited at this “Negro” institution. In lieu of an indoor track, the athletes ran through the corridors of Kean Hall, careful to hit the double swinging doors without hurting themselves. Yet, with sheer endurance and determination, Rudolph and the Tigerbelles (the TSU team) performed superbly. In the summer of 1959 Rudolph and her teammates won the relays at the Pan American Games in Chicago. Rudolph participated in the National AAU meet in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1960, and won the 100-meter and 200-meter, thereby qualifying for the 400-meter relay in the Olympic trials at Texas Christian University weeks later.

It was at the 1960 Olympics in Rome that Rudolph and the American women’s track team won world fame. Tigerbelles comprised nearly a third of the members on the American team. Rudolph received three gold medals for winning at 100 meters and 200 meters and in the 400-meter relay. She became the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympiad. Despite the lack of resources, Rudolph and her fellow Tigerbelles had won with guts and determination. Temple said: “I was bursting all the buttons on my shirt.… Rudolph became such a celebrity she couldn’t leave the compound without creating a mob scene.” The Africans and the French called her “the Black Pearl” and “the Black Gazelle.” On 14 September 1960 Temple took his team to the British Empire Games in London, where Rudolph won all her events. All over Europe the team was acclaimed by crowds. In Clarksville, Blanche and Eddie Rudolph beamed with pride when the citizens sponsored a parade and banquet to welcome Rudolph home. There were honors from the governor of Tennessee, the Nashville Banner, and Sport magazine. She traveled to Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., where she was honored by President John F. Kennedy. But it was noted that in Clarksville the Shoney’s restaurant still refused to serve African Americans, including Rudolph.

In 1961 Rudolph received the Sullivan Award as top amateur athlete in America. She was voted AAU All-American in 1956, 1957, 1959, 1960, 1961, and 1962. This was significant in the turbulent decade when America was in the midst of the movement for civil rights. Rudolph became the first woman and first African American to be invited to run in the New York Athletic Club Track Meet, an invitation that opened the door for other women to gain admittance into the club. She ran against the Russians in Madison Square Garden, and made goodwill tours of Africa and Japan.

Amid all the acclaim, Rudolph did not neglect her education. She joined Delta Sigma Theta sorority and received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 1963. On 14 October 1961 Rudolph married William Ward; the couple were divorced the next year. On 20 July 1963 Rudolph married a high school sweetheart and TSU basketball star, Robert Eldridge. They had four children and were divorced in 1981. In 1965 the couple moved to Evansville, Indiana, when Rudolph became the director of a community center there. Later, she managed youth programs for the Job Corps in Boston and then in Maine, and by 1967 she was working with Vice President Hubert Humphrey to develop Operation Champion to provide sports training for inner city children. In 1972 she provided television broadcast commentary for the Munich Olympic Games.

In later years Rudolph held a variety of public service positions. She worked with the Job Corps in St. Louis and served as a teacher in Detroit. In 1975 Rudolph became assistant director of the Youth Foundation in Chicago. Rudolph worked with the Watts Community Action Committee in California, and in Indianapolis for ten years before deciding to move the family back to Clarksville in 1977 before returning to Detroit. In 1992 she made her final move to Nashville, where she became a vice president with Baptist Hospital. Rudolph also became president of the Wilma Rudolph Foundation to help children overcome difficult life circumstances as she had done.

Late honors included induction into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame (1967) and the Black Athletes Hall of Fame (1974). In 1980 TSU named its indoor track for Wilma Rudolph, and in 1993 a section of U.S. Highway 79 in Clarksville became Wilma Rudolph Boulevard. In 1994, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Then, Wilma Rudolph was diagnosed with brain and lung cancer. She seldom appeared in public, except for quiet and personal walks around the old track with the retired Coach Temple. “If there’s something I want to talk about, I just end up at his track,” she said to a local newspaper.

At age fifty-four Rudolph died quietly in her Nashville home. Four thousand mourners filled TSU’s Kean Hall for the memorial service. Rudolph’s funeral was held at Clarksville’s First Baptist Church, and the state flag was lowered all across Tennessee. Wilma Rudolph became one of America’s greatest heroes. From a segregated, working class background, a once-sickly African American child became America’s greatest female athlete. Surely, she resented the bitter taste of racism. Yet, Rudolph was always quiet, reserved, dignified, friendly, and humble. Nevertheless, despite the challenges in her life, she brought grace and respect to the sport of women’s track and field and honor for her country.

Papers on Rudolph and Edward S. Temple are collected at the Brown-Daniel Library at Tennessee State University. Wilma: The Story of Wilma Rudolph (1977) is an autobiography, written with Martin Ralbovsky. (Bud Greenspan’s dramatized film version appeared on television the same year.) Biographies include Tom Biracree, Wilma Rudolph (1988), and Linda Jacobs, Wilma Rudolph: Run for Glory (1975). See also Martha W. Plowden, Olympic Black Women (1996), and Edward S. Temple, Only the Pure in Heart Survive (1980). The story of TSU athletics and the Tigerbelles is told in Dwight Lewis and Susan Thomas, A Will to Win (1983). Reference resources include Notable Black American Women (1992) and the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture (1998). An obituary is in the New York Times (13 Nov. 1994).

Bobby L. Lovett