Jackson, Nell (1929–1988)

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Jackson, Nell (1929–1988)

African-American track champion, coach, and educator. Born on July 1, 1929, in Athens, Georgia; died on April 1, 1988, in Vestal, New York; only daughter and middle of three children of Burnette L. Jackson and Wilhemina G. Jackson; graduated from Tuskegee High School, Tuskegee, Alabama; B.S. in physical education from Tuskegee University; M.S. in physical education from Springfield College, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1953; Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, 1962; never married; no children.

Born in 1929 in Athens, Georgia, Nell Jackson grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, where her family moved when she was a child. A graduate of Tuskegee University, she received a master's degree in physical education from Springfield College in 1953 and a doctorate from the University of Iowa in 1962.

Jackson's interest in athletics began in grade school, where she competed in basketball, tennis, swimming, and track. In eighth grade, she was on the basketball team when the coach noticed her speed on the court and suggested that she go out for track. Jackson specialized in the 200-meter sprint, mainly because women were excluded from long-distance competitions. "There were a lot of so-called 'studies' around then showing how 'dangerous' it was for women to run longer distances, that they would upset their chemical and physical make up," she explained. "It didn't make a great deal of sense to me, but there was nothing I could do about it." Joining the newly formed Tuskegee Institute Track-and-Field Club, Jackson also ran as anchor on the 400-meter relay team, which won the relay title for five years in a row.

Jackson was one of 11 women track-and-field competitors to win a spot on the 1948 U.S. Olympic team, though she did not place in her two events—the 200-meter and 400-meter relay. (The women's track-and-field competition was dominated that year by Fanny Blankers-Koen , the Dutch mother of four who captured four gold medals.) Unfortunately, Jackson reached the height of her competitive career between Olympiads. In 1949, she won the national 200-meter title in 24.2 seconds, beating the 14-year American record by two-tenths of a second. In 1950, she successfully defended her national title, running the dash in 25 seconds. At the first Pan-American games held in Buenos Aires in

1951, Jackson won a silver medal in the 200 meter and a gold in the 400-meter relay. That gold medal became a prized possession. "It wasn't an Olympic medal," she said, "but it still gave me great satisfaction."

After receiving her master's degree in the summer of 1953, Jackson returned to Tuskegee Institute, where she taught physical education and coached the women's track-and-field team from 1954 to 1962. Her outstanding work brought her to the attention of the Olympic Organization, which in 1956 made her the first black woman head coach of an Olympic track-and-field team. At the Melbourne Games that year, she had the satisfaction of seeing one of the Tuskegee women, Mildred McDaniel , win a gold medal in the high jump with a world-record leap.

Resuming her education at the University of Iowa in 1960, Jackson returned to Tuskegee in 1962 with her Ph.D., rejoining the faculty as an assistant professor of physical education. Her teaching career subsequently took her to Illinois State University and to the University of Illinois at Champaign, where she organized and coached the Illinois Track Club for Girls, the first track-and-field team for women at the university. She also published numerous papers and articles, as well as a highly regarded textbook, Track and Field for Girls and Women.

In 1968, Jackson chaired both the U.S. Women's Track and Field and the AAU Women's Track and Field Committees and also served as a member of the board of directors of the U.S. Olympic Committee. In 1972, she was off to Munich to coach another women's track-and-field Olympic team.

In 1973, Jackson was hired as director of women's athletics at Michigan State University, becoming the first black woman to head athletics at a major university. Jackson downplayed the race issue. "I think the people who hired me thought I was the best qualified for the job. I've never had a single problem with any young women athletes I've coached that had anything to do with race." During her tenure at Michigan State, Jackson expanded women's sports to a full-scale program and quadrupled the budget allotted to women's athletics, though the amount spent was still considerably less than the huge sum spent on men's athletics. Jackson left Michigan State in 1981 to become director of physical education and intercollegiate athletics at the State University of New York (SUNY). She died on April 1, 1988, after a short illness.


Bortstein, Larry. After Olympic Glory. NY: Frederick Warne, 1978.

Smith, Jessie Carney. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Jackson, Nell (1929–1988)

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