Dr. Nell Jackson

July 1, 1929 - April 1, 1988

Women's Pioneer

African-American Track Champion, Coach, & Educator

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Nell was born on July 1, 1929, in Athens, Georgia and died on April 1, 1988, in Vestal, New York. She was the only daughter and middle of three children of Burnette L. Jackson and Wilhemina G. Jackson  Dr. Nell Jackson graduated from Tuskegee High School, Tuskegee, Alabama; B.S. in physical education from Tuskegee University; M.S. in physical education from Springfield College, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1953; Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, 1962.

Nell's interest in athletics began in lower school, where she competed in tennis, swimming, basketball, and track. In eighth grade, the basketball coach noticed her speed on the court and convinced her to go out for track. Jackson ran the 200-meter, primarily because women were excluded from long-distance running. "There were a lot of so-called 'studies' around then showing how 'dangerous' it was for women to run longer distances, that they would upset their chemical and physical make up," Nell explained. "It didn't make a great deal of sense to me, but there was nothing I could do about it." Nell joined newly formed Tuskegee Institute Track-and-Field Club, running the 200m and ran as anchor on the 400-meter relay, which won the title for five years the following five years. At the age of 15, Jackson competed in the US national championships. In 1945, she competed in the AAU indoor and outdoor championships, arning a silver medal at both.

Nell Jackson was one of 11 women track-and-field competitors to win a spot on the 1948 U.S. Olympic team. In 1949, she won the US. National 200-meter title in 24.2 seconds, beating the 14-year old American record by 2/10 of a second. She repeated her win in 1950, running 25 seconds. At the first Pan-American games held in Buenos Aires in

1951, she brought home a silver medal in the 200 meter and a gold in the 400-meter relay. "It wasn't an Olympic medal," she said, "but it still gave me great satisfaction."

In 1953, Jackson returned to Tuskegee to work as the women's track and field coach, later also serving as the first men's swimming coach after creating the Tuskegee swimming program in 1958. She taught physical education and coached the women's track-and-field team from 1954 to 1962. Her outstanding work brought her to the attention of the Olympic Organization, which in 1956 made her the first black woman head coach of an Olympic track-and-field team.

Jackson returned to Tuskegee in 1962, rejoining the faculty as an assistant professor of physical education. Her teaching career subsequently took her to Illinois State University and to the University of Illinois at Champaign, where she organized and coached the Illinois Track Club for Girls, the first track-and-field team for women at the university and was the head coach of the national championship 1970 track team. She also published numerous papers and articles, as well as a highly regarded textbook, Track and Field for Girls and Women.

In 1968, Jackson chaired both the U.S. Women's Track and Field and the AAU Women's Track and Field Committees and also served as a member of the board of directors of the U.S. Olympic Committee. In 1972, she was again appointed as the head coach of the women's track-and-field Olympic team.

In 1973, Jackson was hired as director of women's athletics at Michigan State University, becoming the first black woman to head an athletic department at a major university. Jackson downplayed the issue of race. "I think the people who hired me thought I was the best qualified for the job. I've never had a single problem with any young women athletes I've coached that had anything to do with race." Jackson left Michigan State in 1981 to become director of physical education and intercollegiate athletics at the State University of New York (SUNY). She died on April 1, 1988, after a short illness.

Championship Results

  • 1945 AAU: 200 m (2nd)

  • 1945 AAU Indoors: 200 m (2nd)

  • 1949 American Record 200 m 24.2 seconds

  • 1951 Pan-Am Games: 200 m (2nd)

  • 1951 Pan-Am Games: 400 m relay (1st)

  • 1950 NCAA: 200 m (1st)

  • 1950 NCAA: 400 m relay (1st)

  • 1989  inducted into the US National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1989