Louise Stokes

 Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Imagine this: You're one of the best athletes in the world. You train and you train and you qualify to represent your nation in the Olympic Games. You raise the money to afford the travel costs just to get there -- the next step in the long journey toward the gold. But when you arrive, you find you've been replaced by a less-capable athlete because her skin color is less offensive to your teammates than yours. 

Now, imagine that happening to you twice.

This is a true story. It's the story of Louise Stokes.

Even as a child, Louise was fast. By the time she was 15, in 1928, she dominated the track team at her high school in Malden, Massachusetts. She was unbeatable. An all-rounder, she was also star center of the school basketball team. And she still made time to sing with her church choir.

Though Louise was black, her high school leadership team saw past the color of her skin, for she was a tremendously talented athlete: a true natural. By the time she graduated, Louise had set the New England record for the 100-meter dash. She'd also tied the world's highest standing broad jump when she leapt 8 feet, 5 inches (more than 2 1/2 meters) into the air. Not long after, when the International Olympic Committee announced that it would include women's track and field events at the 1932 Los Angeles Games, hope ignited in the heart of Louise Stokes.

Women had only been permitted to participate at the Olympics since the 1900 Paris Games, and only then in lawn tennis and golf. Many wrongly believed that serious sports would damage women's internal organs and prevent them from carrying children. Tennis and golf were considered to be "less strenuous" and therefore okay. But women athletes pushed back against that, hard. Women's gymnastics debuted at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics and from 1932 female runners would be included too. 

Louise made the trip from Massachusetts to Evanston, Illinois, to attend the United States Olympic Trials, the track and field meet held every four years with the express purpose of selecting the US Olympic Team. Louise finished a respectable third in the 100-meter dash, winning her a place on the US Women's 4 X 100 Relay Team. Another African-American woman, Tidye Pickett, from Chicago, also made the Relay Team. Louise and Tidye were off to Los Angeles to represent their nation at the largest sporting event in the world.

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Trouble began on their train ride to LA. Louis and Tidye were not allowed to travel with their fellow white athletes. They were forced to sleep apart from them in a berth near the service area, and to eat separate from their teammates too. 

One 1932 Team USA athlete, Babe Didrickson, was so offended by the presence of the black women that she broke into Louise and Tidye's room and poured a pitcher of ice water onto their heads. And to think: Babe had been locked out of the Olympic Games only a fews years before due to her gender.

But Louise and Tidye were born to run and so they persevered. They endured the abuse from both teammates and sports fans so that they, too, could reach for their dreams.

Now, in 1932 the world was still reeling from the Great Depression. Travel to California was an insurmountable burden for many, both athletes and attendees. Only 1,300 athletes participated, representing 37 countries. And ticket sales were low despite the motion-picture celebrities who volunteered to entertain the crowds. Despite this, on arrival in LA, Louise and Tidye found they'd been booted off the US Team, replaced with two white runners, neither of whom had qualified.

Louise and Tidye were forced to watch from the stands as their team went on to win the Gold Medal. Babe Didrickson would win two golds that year.

Nevertheless, Louise appeared at the next Olympic Team Trials in advance of the 1936 Berlin Games. She won the semi-final of the women's 100-meter dash, again earning her a place on the US Relay Team. Her hometown of Malden rallied around her, raising the $680 she needed to get to the Berlin. Tidye qualified again as well, for both the relay as well as the 80-meter hurdles.

But for Louise, history was to repeat itself. She learned, again, only on arrival, that a white athlete had been given her turn to hold the baton. Tidye went on to make history, however, as the first African-American woman to compete at the Olympic Games, running the hurdles. Since hurdling was a singles sport, there was no way to prevent Tidye from competing. Louise had no such protection. Racism once again robbed her of her chance at an Olympic medal.

History was also made that year by another African-American athlete who stood beside Tidye in Berlin: Jesse Owens. Jesse won four gold medals for Team USA at the Berlin games, making him the most successful athlete in Olympic history. Jesse's fame and warm reception by German crowds mocked Hitler's vision of Aryan supremacy. However, when Jesse returned home he was snubbed by the White House. During a ticker-tape parade in NY to celebrate the returning athletes, Jesse was not even permitted to enter through the main doors of the Waldorf Astoria. He had to take the freight elevator in order to reach the reception held in his honor. 

Owens and Pickett broke barriers in 1936, giving Stokes hope that she would get her turn, finally, in 1940. But the Olympic Games were cancelled that year due to the outbreak of World War II. Louise retired from racing. She founded a black women's bowling league, for which she won many awards, and settled in Massachusetts to raise a family.

Louise's talent and ability may have been overshadowed by human weakness in the form of prejudice. Yet her capacity for hope and her personal determination in the face of overwhelming adversity paved the way for African-American athletes following fast on her winged heels. Though she never got her chance to compete as an Olympiad, Louise Stokes made history with her indomitable spirit. That's why we're proud to claim her as a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero during both Black History Month 2018 and the 2018 Olympic Games.

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