Remember the Tigerbelles

Feb 13 2019
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Remember the Tigerbelles

By: Amanda Haggard

In 1960, Tennessee State University women’s track coach Ed Temple and a group of female track stars did something nobody had ever done before. They broke the so-called color barrier  at the Olympics. 

When the team first started competing nationally: “Coach Temple was given $300 and two station wagons and told to go compete against the world,” says Dwight Lewis, a former Tennessean writer and editor and co-author of the book Temple’s Tigerbelles: An Illustrated History Of The Women Who Outran The World. Lewis will discuss Temple’s Tigerbelles: An Illustrated History Of The Women Who Outran The World at Parnassus Books, 3900 Hillsboro Pike, Suite 14, on Feb. 24 at 2 p.m. 

In Lewis’ book, he and co-writer former Tennessean writer Susan Thomas take readers on a historical journey, but the book could also be considered great reading for a sports junkie or, because of its illustrations, a book to introduce kids to the Tigerbelles. The illustrations are done by Nashville artist James Threalkill, who’s also done work for Sesame Street, The Jamie Foxx Show and Living Single. 

In 1960, the team earned several gold, silver and bronze medals at the Rome Olympic games in Italy. It was the same year the the Civil Rights Act of 1960 was established, creating penalties for attempting to keep people from voting. In Nashville, black college students were engaging in sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters at Woolworth's, Kress's and McLellan's and the city became the first major city in the country to desegregate public facilities. 

“They could win gold medals at the Olympics, on a world stage, and yet come back home and not be able to eat in a restaurant,” says Howard Gentry, the Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk, in a Middle Tennessee State University press release. Gentry, a TSU alumnus, was very close to Temple before Temple’s passing in 2016, and his family has served at Tennessee State University throughout the years. 

This past year, Middle Tennessee State University film professor Tom Neff released Mr. Temple and the Tigerbelles, a film honoring the team and their coach. Neff, who created the film with the help of  students and faculty from MTSU’s College of Media and Entertainment, is an Academy-award nominated filmmaker and the creator of the Documentary channel. Lewis, who wrote the book about the Tigerbelles, is also featured in the documentary, which took three years to produce.

“The more we got into the story, the more pressure we put on ourselves to tell it in an innovative way,” Neff says. 

The Tennessee State Museum at 1000 Rosa L. Parks Blvd., will host a free screening of Mr. Temple and the Tigerbelles on Feb. 16 at 2 p.m.

At the screening, Gentry will join Neff and former Tigerbelle and Olympic Gold Medal winner 

Chandra Cheeseborough for a discussion. The screening is a partnership with the Tennessee State Museum, MTSU, TSU, The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee and The African American Guide to Nashville. The film was included on the 2018 International Documentary Association’s short list of film shorts.

In addition to Cheeseborough, who also became a TSU women’s track coach, Wilma Rudolph was a huge star at the 1960 Olympic Games — taking home three gold medals that year (the first American woman ever to do so) and gaining the title of the fastest woman on earth. Rudolph spent her childhood recovering from polio.

“My doctors told me I would never walk again,” Rudolph once said. “My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”

After recovering she decided she wanted to become an athlete and defied all odds in pursuing her dream. 

Rudolph passed away in 1994, but she once told a newspaper: “I loved the feeling of freedom in running, the fresh air, the feeling that the only person I'm competing with is me.”

Her coach, Temple, was known for his rigorous training regimen — often starting before the sun went up and holding practices several times in one day. In his more than 40 years as a coach, he led his team to win 13 gold, six silver and four bronze medals at the Olympics. Temple also led the team to 34 national titles. And eight of the women he coached are in the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.

Temple was always proud that his athletes all completed  their college education — some earning bachelor’s degrees, and several earning masters and doctorates. 

“At that time, people weren’t too keen on women participating in sports,” Temple once said. “Everything was geared toward football and basketball at Tennessee State, but the Tigerbelles came along. They worked hard and it paid off.” 

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