Matthews, Margaret (1935—)

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Matthews, Margaret (1935—)

African-American track-and-field champion . Born Margaret Rejean Matthews in Griffin, Georgia, on August 5, 1935; grew up in Atlanta and graduated from David T. Howard High School, the only member of her family to graduate from high school; married Jesse Wilburn (a Tennessee State football running back).

Was the first American woman to broad-jump 20 feet (1958); won the AAU broad jump title (1957,1958, 1959); won an Olympic bronze medal in the 4x100-meter relay (1956).

Margaret Matthews belonged to a select group of American track-and-field champions who began their careers at Atlanta's David T. Howard High School under Marian Armstrong-Perkins and continued as Tennessee Tigerbelles under Ed Temple. This small circle, who won national and international championships at Howard High and Tennessee State, included Mary McNabb, Mildred McDaniel, Anna Lois Smith , and Edith McGuire . But if Matthews was a member of an elite squad as an athlete, her life outside school was one of poverty. She grew up on Butler Street, one of the poorest, roughest neighborhoods in Atlanta. The $26 per week her mother earned working in a laundry was the family's main income, as her infirm father worked only periodically. Neither of her parents had gone beyond third grade and no one in her family had graduated from high school. For Matthews, track and field was a way out. "I saw in athletics a chance to be something," she said. "I saw Mary McNabb and Mildred McDaniel win medals, and I felt if they could, I could."

Matthews did not attend Tennessee State University directly from high school. Instead, she went to Bethune-Cookman College in Florida, then left for Chicago to run for the CYO. Finally, she enrolled at Tennessee State where she roomed with her emotional opposite Mae Faggs . While Faggs was mature and maternal, Matthews was immature, shrill, and determined to beat her teammates to prove herself. This was a tall order; the Tennessee Tigerbelles represented some of the world's best female athletes. Because she vacillated between overconfidence and self-doubt, Matthews' performances were erratic; she would win some meets, while at others she would not even place among the top runners. Competition with individuals seemed more important than winning an event. "The only time Margaret would jump was when I would jump," observed Willye B. White . "She was determined to beat me." For Matthews, track was comparable to the mean streets of Atlanta—a place where one fought to survive.

In 1956, Matthews was considered America's best chance for a medal in the broad jump, as she set a new American record of 19′9¼" in the Olympic trials, beating Willye White by 6". In Melbourne, however, Matthews found the Olympics overwhelming and jumped a full 3′ less than her record jump in the Olympic trials, though she did redeem herself by winning a bronze medal on the U.S. 400-meter relay team. In 1957, Matthews won the broad jump title in the national outdoor AAU meet. At the AAU meet on July 6, 1958, she became the first woman to jump over 20′ with a record 20′1". Matthews was pleased; she had topped Willye White. She was also delighted to beat another arch-rival Barbara Jones in the 100-meter run. As well, Matthews anchored a victory for the Tigerbelles in the 4x100-meter relay.

During the Cold War, athletic events became battles; teams sought to prove the superiority of the system under which they trained. All this was lost on Matthews. "At that time I had not learned what it meant to win for the United States, or my school, or my hometown." Before participating in her first international event with the Soviet Union in Moscow, Matthews slacked off training and was scratched from the 100-meter run. She placed fourth in the broad jump, behind two Russians and Anna Lois Smith. Being beaten by Smith was particularly galling. Things got worse on the European tour when Willye White had a leap of 20′2½" inches in Warsaw, a new American record. Although Matthews did not particularly care if Eastern bloc teams won, White's victory spurred her on. In a dual meet with Hungary in Budapest, she made a recordbreaking jump of 20′3½" and won gold medals in relay and sprints as well. In her final year at Tennessee State, Matthews successfully defended her broad jump title and was AAU All-American, but she placed second to Vera Krepkina in a meet between the U.S. and USSR. In the Pan American meet held in Chicago in 1959, Anna Lois Smith beat Matthews in the broad jump.

After college graduation, Matthews married Jesse Wilburn and moved to Memphis, where she became a teacher in the Klondike Elementary School and he became a coach at Melrose High School. "Even now," she said, "I want to be the best teacher here."


Davis, Michael D. Black American Women in Olympic Track and Field. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1992.

Page, James A. Black Olympian Medalists. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1991.

Karin Loewen Haag , Athens, Georgia

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Matthews, Margaret (1935—)

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