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An Enduring Spirit
How Mabel Staton outran prejudice to become a legend
By Kate Morgan

All Mabel “Dolly” Landry Staton ever wanted to do was run. There were certainly hurdles in her way – she was an African-American girl during an era of sports that considered her an outsider. But none of that stopped her from becoming a six-time national champion and an Olympic record-holder.

Staton, now 83 and living in Voorhees, vividly remembers her first race in a Chicago schoolyard when she was 11.

“I was walking with my father, and we saw the children running,” she says. “He said, ‘I bet you can’t run like that.’ We went over, and I ended up beating everyone.”

A track coach spotted the sprinter and invited her to run with the school’s track team. When Staton went to high school a few years later, there were no opportunities for women to run track.

“The men’s coach saw me running, and he said he wanted to coach me on the side,” she says. “By the time I was 16, I was ready for national competition.”

sj_olympian_mabel_1565-2609-2The first national competition Staton attended was in Odessa, Texas. On the train from Chicago, she caught a glimpse of the racism that would plague – but never define – her athletic career. It was 1949, and the South was still deeply segregated.

“I was in a roomette on the train for two days,” Staton says. “When we got to Fort Worth, the conductor banged on the door and said I had to get out because we’d just crossed the Mason-Dixon line. In those days, the blacks sat in the back on the bus and the subway, but on the train they sat in the first coach, so all the smoke would get them first. I left the roomette and walked up through the 20 cars to my coach. He was shocked to see me and visibly upset at what had happened.”

At the competition in Odessa, Staton competed as an independent and won both the 100-meter dash and the long jump.

“Five girls from the Hurricanes [an all-white Chicago track team] came up to me and asked if they could join my team,” Staton says. “I said, ‘Team? I don’t have a team!’ They said, ‘Mabel, please, ask your coach.’ We didn’t have any money for a team, but when we got back to Chicago, my coach sued the Illinois Central Railroad for what had happened on the train. He got enough money for the white girls to join me, and we became the very first interracial track team in the Midwest.”

The team, later sponsored by the Catholic Youth Organization, went on to compete against – and beat – teams from all over the country. Staton was the national long jump champion in 1949, 1950, 1952 and 1953. The incident in Texas wasn’t the last time she faced down racism – not by a long shot – but Staton’s memories are all marked with perseverance and victory.

“We continued to beat everybody at all the national competitions, and different organizations would invite me to come and participate,” Staton says. “We were invited to the relays in Tuskeegee, Alabama, and on the way we had a horrible accident. The car was totaled, but the girls – it was four black girls on that particular team – were all fine. A policeman came and said, ‘Now what are we going to do with them?’ He said he knew a colored lady who lived across the tracks and maybe she would take us in. I called my coach, and he told me to take a bus on to Tuskeegee. There was no seat for me on the bus, but the driver said he’d take me if I was willing to stand the whole time and jump off at a red light. Well, I did that and then walked through Tuskeegee that night, alone, to where I needed to go. My mother was upset because I was only 17 or 18 and doing those things, but I just wanted to be there to compete.”

Staton says that in hindsight, she realizes her mother was upset because she understood the danger her daughter might have been in, but she considers her naiveté at the time a blessing.

“We’d stop at gas stations to use the bathroom, and I’d tell Millie, a white girl, to go get the key,” she says. “We just went right on into the white bathroom, because it was always much, much cleaner, and the attendants would just look at us in bewilderment. I know I was blessed in that area, because nothing truly terrible ever happened on those trips.”

“My children often ask me how did I carry on during the prejudice of those years,” Staton continues. “Well, I went to Catholic school, and in first grade I asked the nun why we were different from everyone else. She said God loved us more, and that’s why he gave us color. That sustained me for the rest of my life. Being black did not stop me. I just wanted to run, and so I ran.”

In 1950, Staton was offered a scholarship to DePaul University, and though the school didn’t offer intercollegiate athletics to women, she continued to compete through the Amateur Athletic Union. In 1952, she flew to Helsinki, Finland to represent the United States at the Olympic Games. She placed seventh in long jump, and her 19-foot-3-inch jump in the preliminaries set an Olympic record.

“I was the best America had to offer in the long jump,” Staton says. “When I went to Helsinki, it was the first time I’d ever left the country, the first time I’d ever been on a plane. I didn’t think we’d ever get off. I remember that like it was yesterday.”

In 1955, Staton represented the United States at the Pan American Games, where she won a gold medal in the 4×100 meter relay and a bronze in the 60-meter dash. Soon after, she moved to New Jersey with her new husband, a Woodbury native. She got a master’s degree from Rowan University and taught in local schools until she retired.

For nearly 50 years, Staton’s athletic achievements were celebrated solely in the memories of her friends and family. After she turned 75, she says, there was suddenly a deluge of honors. In 2008 she received a letter jacket from DePaul, decades after the school opened its athletic programs to women, and over the next few years she was inducted into the DePaul Hall of Fame, the Helms Hall of Fame for women’s track, and the Chicagoland and New Jersey Halls of Fame. She was presented the Rosa Parks Award and the South Jersey Track and Field Association’s lifetime achievement award.

“It’s been one thing after another,” she says. “I’ve received all these honors, just since I turned 75. I’m told it’s because I’m a legend. I think that’s funny.”

For 35 years, Staton has officiated track meets for the N.J. State Interscholastic Athletic Association. She says the sport remains deeply important to her, and she’ll continue to be involved for as long as she’s able.

“I do love the sport. Being a track and field star afforded me the opportunity to go to college, which I never would have been able to do. It’s fun being an official. I’m a pretty active 83-year-old. I take no medication, and I have no medical history. I’m pretty healthy, so I may retire after the 35th year,” she laughs, “but then, maybe not.”

 

November 2016
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