1948: New Orleans’ Audrey Patterson makes Olympic history
In 1948, New Orleans native Audrey “Mickey” Patterson packed her bags for London. A willowy, fleet-footed college track star who had prepped at Gilbert Academy (now De La Salle), she was one of nine African-American women to earn a spot on the U.S. Track and Field Team — and a chance to compete in the 1948 London Olympic Games. She did more than just compete, though. The 22-year-old made history, finishing third in the women’s 200-meter dash — and becoming the first African-American woman in history to win an Olympic medal.
Patterson died in 1996 at the age of 69 at Paradise Valley Hospital in San Diego. While her on-the-track accomplishments were for years largely ignored in her hometown, she has come to be appreciated and celebrated as the trailblazing star she was. In 1978, she was inducted into the Allstate Sugar Bowl Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame, and in 2000 she was posthumously enshrined in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. “She was a true pioneer in the sport,” said USA Track & Field historian Hal Bateman, historian of USA Track & Field, “but Mickey was a lot more than that. She was a major contributor to the sport long after she finished running.”
- Patterson made no bones about how much it stung that her victory went largely uncelebrated in New Orleans, with no parade or formal celebration held in her honor; with Mayor Chep Morrison declining to attend a community-organized fete in her honor; and with The Times-Picayune, in its coverage of the London Games, never once mentioning she was a New Orleans native. “I think I’ll always be a little hurt about the way New Orleans treated me,” she would say in 1976. “The little that was done was almost an afterthought. It was heartbreaking, really.”
- Patterson was born in 1926 to Lionel and Josephine Patterson. She grew up on Genois Street in Gert Town and attended Danneel Elementary School, where she first developed an interest in sprinting events.
- She then attended Gilbert Academy, where she excelled as a dancer, singer and band member. She also played on the basketball team, but when Olympic legend Jesse Owens gave a speech at Gilbert in 1944, Patterson felt like he was talking directly to her, which inspired her commitment to track. “Cinders have been my diet ever since that day,” she told The Item newspaper in 1950.
- After graduating from Gilbert in 1947, Patterson briefly attended Wiley College in Texas but transferred to Tennessee State University in Nashville after experiencing racism in the Lone Star State. Her track career then blossomed, with 1948 becoming pivotal, when she went unbeaten in every meet in which she competed (including collegiate, AAU and club) and set numerous national records.
- At the ’48 Olympic trials, Patterson earned spots on the U.S. women’s team in the 200 meters (which she won at the trials) and the 100 meters (in which she finished third despite being locked into the women’s room before the race).
- The 200 women’s final in London was an interesting affair. While the Netherlands’ Francina Blankers-Koen blazed to an easy gold, the next three finishers — including Patterson, who was 21 at the time — finished just a tenth of a second apart. After deliberating, judges determined that Patterson had nosed out Shirley Strickland of Australia for bronze.
- Patterson didn’t rest on her Olympic laurels. In August 1948 at an international meet in Paris, she won the 100 meters, prompting the Pittsburgh Courier to call her “New Orleans’ ambassador of speed and America’s fastest runner.”
- The Amateur Athletic Union named Patterson its Woman Athlete of the Year in 1949.
- Not everyone in New Orleans gave Patterson the cold shoulder in the years right after her Olympic glory. When she was barred from training at City Park, Loyola University coach Jim McCafferty came forward and offered her use of the Loyola cinders.
- Patterson prepared for the 1952 Olympics in Finland but, due to difficulty finding a place to train and lacking the funding for a serious attempt, she wasn’t able to make the U.S. team. However, several New Orleanians attempted to raise enough money to send her to the 1952 U.S. trials, including Louisiana Weekly editor C.C. Dejoie Jr., who presented her with a check at a testimonial dinner hosted by Coca-Cola executives.
- Patterson would eventually finish her college education by earning a degree from Southern University in New Orleans.
- After relocating her family to San Diego in 1963, Patterson formed “Mickey’s Missiles,” a community track club for kids aged 6 to 18. She coached more than 5,000 young athletes through the program, which produced multiple future Olympians, including Jackie Thompson and Dennis Mitchell.
New Orleans’ reputation for producing world-class athletes is well-known. And while Patterson’s was, ironically, largely unknown for years by many in her hometown, her accomplishments on the track are no less significant or inspirational, and her place in the pantheon of great New Orleans athletes undeniable. At least one newspaper seemed to recognize that at the time. The Item offered readers glowing and extensive coverage of Patterson’s career, including multiple feature stories and a fair amount of attention from its sports columnists. It was in The Item that Patterson perhaps described her legacy — and her pride in it — for all time. “I try to be humble, like a good Christian,” she told Item sports editor Scoop Kennedy, “but when I see my name in the Golden Olympic Book, I just crinkle all over. Please forgive me, God.”