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Weekly 150: Wilma Rudolph

The Black Gazelle

Posted 3/7/23

March is Women’s History Month. The month-long declaration is designed to highlight the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society. The next four weeks will be dedicated to Tennessee women who were trailblazers that left a legacy impacting future generations.

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Weekly 150: Wilma Rudolph

The Black Gazelle


March is Women’s History Month. The month-long declaration is designed to highlight the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society. The next four weeks will be dedicated to Tennessee women who were trailblazers that left a legacy impacting future generations.

Wilma Glodean Rudolph was one of the most impressive athletes to call Tennessee home. She was born to Eddie Boyd Rudolph (1887–1961) and Blanche Pettus Rudolph (1909–1994) on June 23, 1940, in the Saint Bethlehem community just outside of Clarksville. Wilma was the twentieth of 22 children from her father Ed Rudolph’s two marriages. Her father, Ed, worked as a railway porter and did odd jobs in Clarksville until his death, and her mother, Blanche, worked as a maid in Clarksville homes.

Born premature, Wilma’s weight was 4.5 pounds. She was a sickly child, spending much of her early years in bed. Some of her ailments included double pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio. At five years old, she contracted infantile paralysis through the poliovirus. She recovered from polio but lost strength in her left leg and foot.

The repercussions of the virus forced Wilma to wear a leg brace until she was twelve years old. With little medical care available to African Americans in Clarksville in the 1940s, Rudolph’s parents sought treatment for her at the historically black Meharry Medical College in Nashville. For two years, Wilma and Blanche made weekly trips to Nashville for treatments to regain the use of her weakened leg.

As part of her therapy, she received at-home massages four times a day from her brothers and sisters. She wore an orthopedic shoe for support of her foot for another two years. Despite further attacks of whooping cough, measles and chickenpox, Wilma was out of her leg braces by age 9.

Initially homeschooled, she began attending second grade at Cobb Elementary School in Clarksville in 1947, when she was seven years old. She attended Clarksville’s all-black Burt High School, where she excelled in basketball and track. In her sophomore year, Rudolph scored 803 points, setting a record for high school girls’ basketball.

Rudolph had already gained some track experience on Burt High School’s track team. She was spotted by Ed Temple, Tennessee State’s track and field coach, who invited the fourteen-year-old Rudolph to join his summer training program at Tennessee State University (TSU). After attending the track camp, Rudolph won all nine events she entered at an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) track meet in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Under Temple’s guidance, she continued to train regularly at TSU while still a high school student. Wilma raced at amateur athletic events with TSU’s women’s track team for two more years before enrolling at TSU as a student in 1958.

When Rudolph was sixteen and a junior in high school, she attended the 1956 U.S. Olympic track and field team trials in Seattle, Washington, and qualified to compete in the 200-meter individual event at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. She was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team and was one of five TSU runners to qualify for the 1956 Olympics.

Rudolph was defeated in a preliminary heat of the 200-meter race but ran the third leg of the 4 × 100 m relay. The American team consisted of Wilma Rudolph, Isabelle Daniels, Mae Faggs and Margaret Matthews, all of whom were from TSU. They won the bronze medal, matching the world-record time of 44.9 seconds.

During her senior year of high school, Rudolph became pregnant with her first child, Yolanda, who was born in 1958, a few weeks before her enrollment at Tennessee State University. In 1959, at the Pan American Games in Chicago, Illinois, Rudolph won a silver medal in the 100-meter individual event, as well as a gold medal in the 4 × 100-meter relay. She also won the AAU 200-meter title in 1959 and defended it for four consecutive years.

In 1960, Wilma qualified for the summer Olympics and set her mind to winning gold medals. She won three gold medals and broke three world records. After tying a world record with her time of 11.3 seconds in the 100-meter semifinals, she won the event with her wind-aided mark of 11.0 seconds in the final. Similarly, Rudolph broke the Olympic record in the 200-meter dash (23.2 seconds) in the heats before claiming another gold medal with her time of 24.0 seconds. She was also part of the U.S. team that established the world record in the 400-meter relay (44.4 seconds) before going on to win gold with a time of 44.5 seconds.

She became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at the same Olympic game. Her performance also earned her the title of “the fastest woman in the world.” Her performance in Rome cemented her as one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century.

Wilma returned home to Clarksville after completing a post-games European tour. Returning home an Olympic champion Rudolph refused to attend her homecoming parade if it was not integrated. She won the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year award in 1961. The following year, Rudolph retired from track and field.

As Wilma explained it, she retired at the peak of her athletic career because she wanted to leave the sport while still at her best. She went on to finish her degree at Tennessee State University and began working in education. In 1961 Rudolph married William War; they divorced two years later in 1963. Later that year, she married Robert Eldridge, the father of Yolanda. Wilma and Eldridge had four children together; Yolanda (1958), Djuanna (1964), Robert Jr., (1965) and Xurry (1971). They divorced after seventeen years of marriage.

Along with teaching, she continued her involvement in sports, working at several community centers throughout the United States. She was inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame and started an organization to help amateur track and field stars. In 1990, Rudolph became the first woman to receive the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Silver Anniversary Award.

In 1981, she established and led the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Indianapolis, Indiana, that trains youth athletes. In 1987, she was named director of the women’s track program at DePauw University and served as a consultant on minority affairs to the university’s president. In 1992, Wilma became a vice president at Nashville’s Baptist Hospital.

In July 1994, Rudolph was diagnosed with brain and throat cancer. Her health rapidly declined. On November 12, 1994, she died at the age of fifty-four, at her home in Brentwood, Tennessee.

Following her death, her life and legacy continued to be honored. In 1994, a portion of U.S. Route 79 was named Wilma Rudolph Boulevard. A year later, the Wilma Rudolph Memorial Commission placed a black marble marker at her grave site in Edgefield Missionary Baptist Church. In April 1996, a life-size bronze statue of Rudolph was erected “at the southern end of the Cumberland River Walk at the base of the Pedestrian Overpass” at College Street and Riverside Drive in Clarksville.

On August 11, 1995, Tennessee State University dedicated a new, six-story dormitory as the Wilma G. Rudolph Residence Center. The building houses upper-class and graduate women. In 1997, Governor Don Sundquist proclaimed that June 23 be known as “Wilma Rudolph Day” in Tennessee. The December 29, 1999, issue of Sports Illustrated ranked Rudolph first on its list of the top fifty greatest sports figures of the twentieth century from Tennessee.


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