White, Willye B. (1939—)

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White, Willye B. (1939—)

African-American track-and-field champion, five-time Olympian, and the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in the long jump . Born in Money, Mississippi, on January 1, 1939; daughter of Willie and Johnnie White; married (divorced).

A Tennessee Tigerbelle and AAU indoor champion (1962); participated in five Olympics (1956, 1960, 1964, 1968, and 1972); won an Olympic silver medal in the long jump (1956) and a silver in the 4x100-meter relay (1964); traveled to 150 countries as a member of 35 international teams; served on the President's Commission on Olympic Sports; was the first American woman to jump over 21' in the broad jump.

During the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, athletic competition was fierce between the U.S. and the USSR. Competing against athletes of the Soviet subsidized system, African-American women did a great deal to maintain the honor of their country, and they did so often against a backdrop of difficult economic circumstances. Without the funds to finance an exclusively athletic existence, many had to work while they trained and attended school, seldom having the time or means to practice to the extent of their Soviet counterparts. Yet African-American women, including five-time Olympian Willye White, continued to set world records.

When White was born in Mississippi on January 1, 1939, her father left, and her mother abandoned her three days later. Raised by her maternal grandparents, White spent summers working in the cotton fields, as her illiterate grandfather tried to instill in her the knowledge that life offered choices: "Unless she made something of herself," writes Tom Callahan, "the cotton fields would be her future."

White, who changed the spelling of her name from "Willie" to "Willye" so that she would not be mistaken for a boy, tried out for track in elementary school, outrunning even the older, high-school girls. From 1953 to 1956, she led her high-school team to victory, participating in the 50-yard dash, the 50-yard hurdles, the 75-yard dash, and the running broad jump. Called by some a "one-girl track team," she was also on the relay team.

In 1956, Willye White was selected to attend Tennessee State University's summer track-and-field training program where she won a place on the Tennessee team. Coached by Ed Temple, the Tennessee Tigerbelles were a dominant force in American women's track and field for 40 years beginning in the mid-1950s. That summer, she traveled with the Tigerbelles to Philadelphia to compete in the national AAU meet where she set a new American record in the girls' broad jump at 18'6". She also began a rivalry with teammate Margaret Matthews , a track-and-field champion from the Atlanta slums, which would spur both women to victories time and again. Matthews hated being beaten, particularly by White. The following week, the two met in Washington, D.C., for the Olympic trials. In the broad jump, White was 6' behind Matthews who jumped 19'19½" a new American record. The two would often exchange first and second place in the years to come.

In 1956, White began the first of her worldwide travels, going to Melbourne for the Olympics. She would later note:

The Olympic Games introduced me to the real world. Before my first Olympics, I thought the whole world consisted of cross burnings and lynchings. After 1956 I found there were two worlds, Mississippi and the rest of the world. The Olympic Movement taught me not to judge a person by the color of their skin, but by the contents of their hearts…. I am who I am because of my participation in sports. I am what I am because of my Olympic experience.

In the long jump, White jumped 19'11½" to win the silver medal (Elzbieta Krzesinska of Poland took the gold with a world record 20'10"). In 1957, White won the broad jump in the girls' division at the national outdoor AAU meet, while placing 3rd in the women's division due to an injury. The following year (1958), her rival Matthews was the first American woman to break the 20' barrier with a jump of 20'1". Not long after, at a competition in Warsaw, White jumped 20'2½" to best Matthews. Two days later, Matthews took the competition an inch farther, jumping 20'3½".

After a disappointing 1960 Rome Olympics, where White's confidence was so high that she did not perform well, she left Tennessee for Chicago with the intention of studying nursing. She was kept out of nursing school, however, by a racial quota and took employment with the City of Chicago. In 1961, she was on the U.S. team which toured Europe coached by Marian Armstrong-Perkins , the famous African-American women's coach from Atlanta. In Moscow, with a jump of 20'11½", White placed second behind Tatyana Schelkanova who jumped 21'11" for a new world record. The superiority of the Soviet system was clearly demonstrated. In Karlsruhe, Germany, two days later, White became the first American woman to jump over 21' with a jump of 21'¼". And five days later, she bettered her own mark with in London with a 21'¾". White also continued as a sprinter, performing brilliantly. In Moscow, she ran the first leg of the 4x100-meter with Ernestine Pollard, Vivian Brown , and Wilma Rudolph , and the team set a new world record with a time of 44.3.

In 1962 and 1963, though White did not better any of her records, she continued to win. She trained after work and on weekends and competed whenever she could. Despite the far from ideal training schedule, in 1964 White set a new American record with a broad jump of 21'6" in competition with the Soviets. She was also the member of the winning 4x100-meter relay team, and she won the 100-meters, 200-meters and the high jump. Later that year, she was a member of the U.S. Olympic team in Tokyo. Though she did not fare well in the long jump, she won a silver in the 4x100-meter relay. Also in attendance at the 1968 and 1972 Games, White became one of the few athletes to compete in five Olympiads.

After receiving an athletic scholarship at age 35, she graduated from Chicago State in 1976. That year, an injury made impossible her dream of winning gold at what would have been her sixth Olympics. During a 27-year career, White competed in 150 countries as a member of 35 international teams.

Believing in the power of sports to change young people's lives, she began to work with Chicago's youth. Her Willye White Foundation was established to honor women high-school athletes. As a result of an idea she developed for the foundation in 1994 came the Robert Taylor Girls Athletic Program, through which White offers free sports activities to the children of the Robert Taylor Homes, the U.S.'s largest public-housing project located on Chicago's South Side. Robert Taylor has more than 20,000 residents, and, notes Callahan, "The area is plagued by crime and related problems, with gangs controlling many of the 27 high-rise buildings…. In terviews in 1995 with 1,053 children on the South Side … found that, by age 11, 80% of these children had witnessed someone being assaulted, while 33% had seen a shooting or stabbing and 25% had witnessed a murder."

White's after-school program—with her motto: "If it is to be, it is up to me, for I believe in me"—provides a safe place for Robert Taylor's youth to engage in sports like track, bowling, swimming and basketball. "They have three personalities," notes White, "anger, fear and pain. I have to deprogram these children from violence and reprogram them for peace." Originally intended for girls, White's undertaking includes boys so that they too may play in safety. She told Callahan: "If you can turn the girls around, the girls will turn the boys around…. And together, they can turn the parents around." When asked by Callahan how her work with Chicago's youth compared to her Olympic career, she replied, "It took me 57 years to find the job of my life. This is my ministry. I am creating productive citizens for the year 2000 and beyond. When you jump in competition, it is measured by inches. I won the gold medal in life by a mile."

White received many honors during her long career. She was made a member of the Black Sports Hall of Fame, was the first individual to receive the Pierre de Coubertin International Fair Play Trophy from France, and received induction into the Women's Sports Foundation International Hall of Fame. The Willye White Award which bears her name is given to the top female athletes who attend Chicago high schools.


Callahan, Tom. "She Gets Kids Back on Track," in Parade Magazine. September 14, 1997, p. 16.

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