A Spectacular Leap


Black Women Athletes in Twentieth-Century America
Jennifer H. Lansbury
300 pages, 6 x 9
978-1-55728-658-1 (cloth)


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When high jumper Alice Coachman won the high jump title at the 1941 national championships with “a spectacular leap,” African American women had been participating in competitive sport for close to twenty-five years. Yet it would be another twenty years before they would experience something akin to the national fame and recognition that African American men had known since the 1930s, the days of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens. From the 1920s, when black women athletes were confined to competing within the black community, through the heady days of the late twentieth century when they ruled the world of women’s track and field, African American women found sport opened the door to a better life. However, they also discovered that success meant challenging perceptions that many Americans—both black and white—held of them.

Through the stories of six athletes—Coachman, Ora Washington, Althea Gibson, Wilma Rudloph, Wyomia Tyus, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee—Jennifer H. Lansbury deftly follows the emergence of black women athletes from the African American community; their confrontations with contemporary attitudes of race, class, and gender; and their encounters with the civil rights movement. Uncovering the various strategies the athletes use to beat back stereotypes, Lansbury explores the fullness of African American women’s relationship with sport in the twentieth century.

Jennifer H. Lansbury formerly served as assistant professor of history and director of the sport and American culture minor at George Mason University.

“An insightful, well-researched, and thought-provoking analysis of African American female athletes in the last century.”
Journal of African American History

“An important addition to the historiography of women and sport.”
The Journal of American History

“Jennifer Lansbury brings much needed scholarly attention to the lives of African American women athletes. She has written a compelling, readable narrative that uses biography to illuminate black women’s place in sport history and, more broadly, U.S. history.”
—Susan K. Cahn, author of Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women’s Sport

Books for the Classroom

Adopted at: Lyndon State College
Course: HIS 3155, Sports in American History
Course Description: Analyzes the evolution of American society from the 1830s to the present through the lens of organized professional and amateur athletics. Probes what sports has to teach us about the process of American history in such areas of life as gender, race, ethnicity, local cultures and mass culture, economics, politics, religion, and regional/national identity. Both the experiences of participation and spectatorship will be addressed.
Professor: Paul Searls
Term: Spring 2018

Adopted at: University of Kentucky
Course: History 360 / African American Studies 360, Race and Sports
Course Description: Examines the history of race and sport in America
Professor: Gerald Smith
Term: Spring 2017

Adopted at: University of Pennsylvania
Course: History 231, Race & Ethnicity in Sport
Course Description: Through readings, videos, and discussion, considers the social, cultural, and political relevance of black participation in sport and its larger connection to the evolution of race relations in America.
Professor: Neil Lanctot
Term: Fall 2016

Adopted at: Purdue University
Course: IDIS 371F, The Black Athlete
Course Description: Focuses on specific topics of the personal experiences of blacks, in Africa and the diaspora, including black identity, black culture, and the relationships between blacks and society.
Professor: Andrew McGregor
Term: Fall 2015

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