From Field Days to Olympic Gold: How Black Women Revitalized Track and Field in the United States


  • Erin Lea Gilreath
  • Dagny Zupin
  • Lawrence W. Judge Ball State University



track and field, HBCU, White hegemonic femininity, Black women student-athletes, play days


The sport of track and field in the United States has a storied but tumultuous past, especially in women’s collegiate athletics. In the late 19th century, it was enjoyed by women at elite colleges in the form of a “field day,” but would have trouble surpassing that level, among middle class Whites especially. This hurdle in large part was due to the prevailing ideas at the time regarding what was acceptable physical activity for women, which was inextricably tied to the norms of White hegemonic femininity. Female physical educators reinforced these norms with the creation of “play days.” The abandonment of the sport by Whites in the early part of the 20th century opened a window for African American (Black) women at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to step to the line. They pushed the boundaries of acceptable femininity, redefining their place as Black women in a time in which others would rather they stay on the margins of society. The purpose of this study was to understand the student-athlete experience for women during the 1950s and 1960s as it related to society’s views on femininity and gender roles at the time. A second purpose was to examine the factors that allowed for the acceptance of women’s track and field for Black women at HBCUs while it was considered an improper activity for Whites. During the research of Black women athletes at HBCUs in the 1950s and 1960s, the researchers paid specific attention to scholarships, travel to competitions, and the perceived value of these female athletes to their respective institutions. The researchers used an archival retrieval method to gather historical data from Internet resources. The student-athlete experience for the TSU Tigerbelles in the 1950s and 1960s was a different experience than what athletes experience today. 

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Author Biography

Lawrence W. Judge, Ball State University


School of Kinesiology