Proud to Perform as an American, Past and Present

By Cat Ariail

On November 9, I woke up and opened my computer, preparing to work on my dissertation.  Yet the exercise immediately felt pointless.  In the aftermath of the previous night’s developments, analyzing the 1951 Pan-American Games seemed both absurd and futile.  With the nation’s democratic principles and diverse peoples under threat, academic nuance seemed insufficient in the coming fight against Trumpist domination.

A few days later, however, I returned to my work and found timely inspiration in the experiences of Jean Patton, Evelyn Lawler, and Nell Jackson, the three African American female track athletes who competed at the 1951 Pan-American Games in Buenos Aires.  Against the preferences and priorities of the U.S. Olympic Association, Patton, Lawler, and Jackson claimed their Americanness. Through their presence and performances, they asserted themselves as representatives of the United States.


In the late summer of 1950, the Baltimore Afro-American published an article titled, “Misses May Miss Pan-Olympics.” The text read,

“The possibility of colored girls from the United States competing in the coming Pan-American Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina, received a severe blow when the U.S. Olympic Association voted against women track stars being included on the American team. The executive board of the association instead list women’s track among the sports to be included ‘only if they are able to finance their own expenses.’”[1]

The paper then noted that, “This action was interpreted by a number of coaches as a ‘definite effort’ to keep colored girls out, although the Argentine organizing committee had placed women’s track and field second on its list of important events.” The article also emphasized that “the Olympic committee is headed by Avery Brundage, often termed ‘anti-Negro,’” quoting an unnamed coached who declared, “The chairman is dead set against track and field for women on an international basis.”[2]


A poster advertising the inaugural Pan-American Games. (Poster accessed at the Avery Brundage Collection, University of Illinois).

The 1951 Pan-American Games in Buenos Aires would be the inaugural edition of the hemispheric sporting festival, which national sport officials from the U.S., Argentina, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, and Colombia had begun planning prior to World War II.[3]  The Buenos Aires Games represented the long-delayed realization of an event designed to encourage inter-American cooperation and understanding. However, the intervening World War and rising Cold War had intensified relations between the U.S. and its southern neighbors, particularly Argentina. The U.S. government resented Argentine president Juan Perón’s neutrality during Word War II, as well as his “third position” in the accelerating geopolitical contest between American democracy and Soviet communism.

These tensions were imported into both nation’s approaches to the inaugural Pan-American Games.  Perón assumed an active role in Games, using them to celebrate and advertise Argentine modernity, thereby asserting his nation’s independence from the aims and intentions of the hemisphere’s hegemon. The U.S. interpreted his actions as an affront, with U.S. State Department officials voicing their criticisms of Perón.[4] Such protestation led the New York Times’s Arthur Daley to compare Perón’s use of the Pan-American Games to Hitler’s use of the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936, writing, “It is indeed unfortunate, though, that the first Pan American Games had to encounter the same political hobgoblins that haunted the 1936 Olympic Games at Berlin. Today we have Perón. A decade and a half ago it was Hitler.”[5]

In this atmosphere, the identities of the athletes who would represent the nation in Buenos Aires proved important.  The elite white men who composed the U.S. Olympic Association shared ideological priorities and perspectives with the elite white men in the U.S. government. Thus, the U.S. Olympic Association was invested in presenting an idealized image of the nation, with the U.S. athletes who would compete in Buenos Aires embodying the American superiority Argentina refused to recognize.  Fundraising letters sent to businesses the reveal the U.S. Olympic Association’s concern with national image, as they solicited funds by declaring, “These Games are not just [an] Argentine show….you can be sure if [the] United States [is] not represented it will be misrepresented….Our presence there will operate as it has in scores [of] other cases to build good will from which your business will benefit.”[6]

Despite the repeated proclamations of U.S. Olympic Association president Avery Brundage that sporting festivals were free from politics, the fundraising letter suggests otherwise. The political approach to the Games thereby positioned the effort to exclude U.S. track women as a political action.  According to historian Brenda Elsey, even though the U.S. Olympic Association’s aggressive solicitations produced a surplus of funds, U.S. women’s track “was forced to raise their own funds from amateur associations and educational institutions.”[7] Elsey emphasizes that these funding demands disadvantaged working-class female athletes.  While true, the absence of U.S. Olympic Association-sanctioned financial assistance more so reveals the intentional exclusion of black female athletes from the imagined vision of the nation that presumably would foster sporting good will in Buenos Aires.

The 1950 AAU National Outdoor Championships, held in Freeport, Texas, served as an opportunity for female track athletes to prove their worth ahead of the Pan-American Games.  Black female athletes dominated the track in Freeport. In the most impressive performance, Evelyn Lawler, of Tuskegee (as well as the future mother of Carl Lewis), equaled Babe Didrickson’s U.S. record in winning the 80-yard high hurdles.  Her Tuskegee teammates Juanita Watson and Nell Jackson also captured national titles, with Watson winning the baseball throw and Jackson the 200-meter sprint.  Lawler and Jackson also teamed with Gladys Talley and Catherine Johnson to win the 400-meter relay.  These victories contributed to the Tigerettes’ team title.  Other noteworthy victories were scored by Jean Patton, a Tennessee State Tigerbelle, in the 100-meter sprint and Mabel Landry, competing for the Chicago Catholic Youth Organization, in the broad jump.[8]

Women's Track & Field, Tuskegee University

Evelyn Lawler practices her hurdling form on the track at Tuskegee in 1952. (Photo courtesy of

Women's Track & Field, Tuskegee University

Nell Jackson floats above the Tuskegee track during a 1952 training session.(Photo courtesy of


Nell Jackson (left) and Evelyn Lawler (right) pose with teammate Mary McNabb, who would represent the U.S. at the 1952 Olympics, after at 1952 Tuskegee Tigerette training session. (Photo courtesy of

The performances of  these black female track athletes served to define U.S women’s track as African American women’s track. Their successes, in concert with social prescriptions that prevented many white female athletes from competing, situated the sport as significant of black female athleticism. Thus, as recognized by the Afro-American, a combination of sexism and racism appeared to have led the U.S. Olympic Association to decide against supporting women’s track participation in the Pan-American Games.

Yet, despite a policy that heavily implied the desire to not have the U.S. send a women’s track team, the U.S. women’s track committee was undeterred. Evelyne Hall, the U.S. women’s track committee chairwoman, embraced independent fundraising initiatives.  In a letter to Brundage, she enthused, “The Women’s Track & Field Committee have full steam ahead and we plan difinitely [sic] to raise the funds necessary to send the girls team to the games.” She further wrote, likely much to Brundage’s disdain, to “please be assured that as chairman of the Women’s Track & Field committee, I will do all in my power to raise all the money needed for my team. No stone will be left unturned.”[9]

Her efforts proved successful, as eight female track athletes would compete in Buenos Aires, three of them black – Jean Patton, Evelyn Lawler, and Nell Jackson.[10]  The participation of U.S female track athletes, especially the three black female track athletes, radically resisted the demands of the white male-controlled U.S. Olympic Association. The fact that the black sport press specifically celebrated Lawler and Jackson’s inclusion, with the Chicago Defender and Afro-American both publishing articles anticipating the two young women’s prospects, testifies to the meaningfulness of their opportunity.[11]

At the opening ceremonies, Lawler, Jackson, and Patton entered the brand-new Perón Stadium each dressed in “a light poplin cap with visor, a blue flannel blazer with insignia, and a white skirt and blouse,” the parading uniform of the U.S. women’s team that made them indistinguishable from the nation’s more desired athletic representatives.[12] For these black female athletes, as well as their white track teammates, the outfit was material evidence of their national inclusion, in spite of official preferences. Wearing the uniform of the U.S. in Buenos Aires, they made visible what white male officials wished to remain invisible.

Through their performances, black and white female track athletes further claimed their status as national representatives. U.S. white track women scored three medals, with Nancy Cowperthwaite-Phillips winning bronze in the hurdles, Frances Kaszbuski capturing the discus bronze, and Amelia Bert securing the silver in the javelin.  However, Jean Patton established herself as the female athletic star, not only for the U.S. women but among all female competitors.  Patton won the 200-meters, finished second in the 100-meters, and contributed to the U.S.’s victory in the 4×100-meter relay.  In winning the 200, she set a new South American record. She also joined U.S. middle distance standout Mal Whitfield as the Games’s only triple medalists.[13] Patton thus represented a radical force. She made visible black female athleticism, earning plaudits from the nearly 70,000 Argentine and South American spectators who witnessed her feats. More importantly, she offered a representation of U.S. that troubled preferred hierarchies of race, gender, and nation and sport.

Nell Jackson also found success in Buenos Aires, pushing Patton to her record as she finished second in the 200.  Jackson also joined Patton, as well as the white Janet Moreau and Dolores Dwyer, to win the relay gold.[14] Evelyn Lawler also performed well, although she proved unlucky.  Competing in the high jump, she tied for the highest leap, yet, due to her number of misses, finished sixth.  Lawler also qualified for the 80-meter high hurdles final, but a stumble over the first hurdle again denied her a medal opportunity.[15]

Through their victories and defeats, Patton, Jackson, Lawler, and their white teammates appear to have made a positive impression on their competitors.  The all-white Chilean women’s track team invited the U.S women to compete in an international meet immediately following the Pan-American Games. In a curious turn, their self-funding proved advantageous, allowing them them pursue this opportunity without the permission of the U.S. Olympic Association.[16]  At the Chilean meet, these U.S. female track athletes would position themselves as valid representatives of U.S. athleticism, as well as the nation more broadly.  Evelyn Lawler, unable to secure a medal in Buenos Aires, particularly took advantage of this opportunity.


The photo of Jean Patton published in El Gráfico. (Document accessed at the Olympic Studies Centre.)

On the track in Santiago, Lawler reclaimed her hurdling supremacy.  In route to her victory, she not only set a new South American record but also bettered the times earned by all the hurdling medalists in Buenos Aires. She also avenged her high jump disappointment, tying for first.  Quite impressively, Lawler, Patton, and Jackson swept the top three places in 100-meters, with Patton setting a new South American record as Lawler and Jackson chased her across the finish line.  The Pan-American gold medal winning quartet of Patton, Jackson, Moreau, and Dwyer also captured the 4×100-meter relay in Chile.[17]  As in Buenos Aires, these female athletes claimed their Americanness through their performances. Regardless of the preferences or prerogatives of the U.S. Olympic Association, they asserted themselves as some of the foremost representatives of American athleticism.  For instance, El Gráfico, a South American sport magazine, published a photo of Jean Paton with the caption, “La negrita norte-americana Jean Patton fué figura saliente en las pruebas de velocidad.”[18] (The black North American girl Jean Patton was a prominent figure in the sprints).

The celebratory receptions Patton, Lawler, and Jackson received upon their returns to Tennessee and Alabama further reveal the symbolic importance of their victories.  These acclamations indicate a recognition by the black sport community that, in a society that denied the Americanness of African Americans, sport served as powerful vehicle through which to contest an unjust reality.  For example, the Philadelphia Tribune  praised the efforts of Lawler and Jackson, recapping in detail how they proudly represented the U.S. in Buenos Aires and Santiago.[19]


TSU students and faculty celebrate Jean Patton on her return from the Pan-American Games. (Photo courtesy of Tennessee State University Library Digital Collections).

On arriving in Nashville, Jean Patton enthusiastically was received by the students and faculty of Tennessee State University before being led in a motorcade by TSU President W.S. Davis to the city courthouse, where she was presented to  Nashville mayor Thomas Cummings.  Cummings praised the “excellent educational system of Nashville which had turned out such an outstanding citizen.”[20]  The fact that the mayor referred to Patton as an “outstanding citizen” proves significant, as African Americans, especially African American women in the south, rarely received such recognition.  But more impressively, Patton was invited to the tour the United Nations in April of 1951. The Chicago Defender reported:

“Wing footed Jean Patton, who is used to traveling 100 yards in less than 12 seconds under her own power, got a first hand view of the slow process of building international accord during a visit to the United Nations Organization here last week. But even the tortuous path of diplomacy is a welcome one when it leads to good will and peace, the Tennessee State college sophomore indicated.”[21]

The article then shared information on Patton’s impending marriage before illuminatingly noting that, “She isn’t particularly keen about remaining in the South.”  This attitude represents small act of resistance. Patton, who had established herself as representative of the nation on the tracks of South America, subtly but specifically called out the nation’s enduring failure to live up to its ideals in space dedicated to international inclusivity.  Recall, only six months prior to the Pan-American Games, the Afro-American had fretted that black female track athletes would be denied the opportunity to represent their nation athletically. Patton’s diplomatic visit highlights why the paper had the right to express concern, as her UN visit exemplified the how athletics could serve as an especial sphere for accessing new opportunities and recognitions.


Jean Patton stands in front of the UN Building. (Photo courtesy of the Chicago Defender, 28 April 1951.)


Jean Patton converses with Chinese and Indian representatives at the UN. (Photo courtesy of the Chicago Defender, 28 April 1951).

Although it was unfortunate a larger cohort of talented black female athletes did not compete in Buenos Aires, the trio who did made radical claims to national inclusion.  Through their performances, they inserted themselves, and black female athletes more broadly, into the imagery of American athleticism.  And even if their efforts could not render irrelevant that racist and sexist structures of a U.S. society that denied full citizenship for black women, they symbolically exposed the absurdity of such restrictions. Through sport, they self-determined their right to be Americans.


Only a few weeks ago, the Pan-American story of Patton, Lawler, and Jackson solely seemed to be historical anecdote, one illustrative of how sport functioned in the nation’s past but not our present.  Needless to say, things have changed.  With an incoming Trump administration that envisions an exclusionary American identity, the story of the trio of African American female athletes who expanded the boundaries of American identity 65 years ago is newly relevant.

As scholars of sport, we celebrate the intersection of sport and politics. From Tommie Smith and John Carlos to Colin Kapernick. From Jim Brown to LeBron James. These athletes have used their platforms to promote political messages.  Yet, it proves important to recognize the more mundane ways in which sport is almost always political.  As Patton, Lawler, and Jackson demonstrate, political power lies in presence and performance.  In the coming years, the diversity of American athletes who compete and succeed under the national banner will have similar political power.  Reviewing images from the Rio Games provide a preview. In light of the results of November 8, such images assume a different tenor. These Olympians embody our ever-proclaimed but only inconsistently realized national values – “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and “liberty and justice for all” – that now appear under threat.

Sport, of course, cannot guard against the violations of Trumpism. Yet, as we enter an uncertain four years, sport once again will serve as a significant symbolic space.  Societies have long-considered the bodies of athletes representative of the national body.  This fact led the U.S. Olympic Association to discourage women’s track participation in Buenos Aires.  But the enduring symbolism of athletic-body-as-national-body should buoy our hopes.  We can turn to the tracks, fields, and courts not only  to seek solace but witness Americanism in action.  Our athletes, just as much as those who occupy the national government, define American identity; they are who we are.  This was true in 1951, even as the social norms, state laws, and sport policies sought to deny the Americanness of Jean Patton, Evelyn Lawler, and Nell Jackson.  And, no matter what happens in 2017 and beyond, will continue to be so.

Cat Ariail is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of the University of Miami. She researches gender, race, and nationalism in mid-twentieth track and field. You can contact her at


[1] “Misses May Miss Pan-Olympics,” Baltimore Afro-American, 19 August 1950, 17.

[2] Ibid.

[3] For more information on the planning and organization of the Pan-American Games see: Curtis Ray Emery, “The History of the Pan American Games,” Ph.D. dissertation, Louisiana State University, 1964.

[4] For more information on the intersection of political priorities and cultural initiatives at the Pan-American Games see: Brenda Elsey, “Cultural Ambassadorship and the Pan-American Games of the 1950s,” The International Journal of the History of Sport 33, nos. 1-2 (March 2016): 105-126.

[5] Arthur Daley, “Sports of the Times: At Home and Abroad,” New York Times, 25 February 1951, 44.

[6] “1/29/51 Fundraising Letter,” Record Series 19/224/4, University of Illinois Archives, Avery Brundage Collection (hereafter designated Brundage Collection).

[7] Elsey, 114.

[8] “Tuskegee Women Keep Track Title,” New York Times, 28 August 1950, 22; “Tuskegee Women Keep Title,” Philadelphia Tribune, 29 August 1950, 11; “Tuskegee Girls Retain Title in National AAU,” Chicago Defender, 2 September 1950, 17.

[9] Letter, Evelyne Hall to Avery Brundage, 3 January 1951, Record Series 19/224/2, Brundage Collection.

[10] In my research, I have found no evidence that explains how funds were raised or how the team was selected. Elsey also provides no notation or explaination in her article.

[11] “Two Tuskegee Girls to Run in Pan-American Olympics,” Afro-American, 13 January 1951, 16; “Two Tuskegee Girls Picked For U.S. Pan Team,” Chicago Defender, 27 January 1951, 17.

[12] Emery, 53.

[13] “U.S. Athletes Set Four Marks, Take Five Events in Pan-American Games,” New York Times, 6 March 1951, 33; “Jackson Loses in Pan-American Boxing Test,” Philadelphia Tribune, 10 March 1951, 11.

[14] Ibid; “3 Relay Quartets Win Before 70,000,” New York Times, 7 March 1951, 44.

[15] “Tuskegee’s Pan-Am Champs Come Home,” Philadelphia Tribune, 27 March 1951, 10.

[16] Elsey, 111-112.

[17] “Tuskegee’s Pan-Am Champs.”

[18] “El Gráfico,” no. 1649, 16 March 1951, Record series H-FC02-PANAM/004, Olympic Studies Centre, Lausanne, Switzerland.

[19] “Tuskegee’s Pan-Am Champs.”

[20] “Jean Patton Received By Tennessee Friends,” New York Amsterdam News, 31 March 1951, 27.

[21] “Fleet Jean Patton Finds UN Doesn’t Move As Fast As She,” Chicago Defender, 28 April 1951, 13.

2 thoughts on “Proud to Perform as an American, Past and Present

  1. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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