Just as Jackie Robinson should have broken baseball’s color barrier in the uniform of the Boston Red Sox, Malden’s Louise Stokes should have been America’s first African-American female Olympian at the 1932 Summer Games. The tale of her ascent to Olympic status for both the 1932 and 1936 US Olympic teams, and subsequent prevention from competing in either competition as a member of the 4 x 100 relay teams, is both inspiring and crushingly tragic.
Known as the “Malden Meteor”, Stokes was a truly remarkable all-around track athlete. In 1931, at the age of seventeen she set a New England record in the 100 yard dash, capturing the Curley Cup at Fenway Park, while later that year tying the world record in the standing broad jump.
The following year she traveled to Northwestern University. where she finished third in the 100 at the Olympic Trials, which earned her a place on the women’s 4 x 100 relay team. Among her teammates was fellow African-American Tidye Pickett, with whom she roomed, as both were virtual outcasts on a squad dominated by the hostile presence of star performer Babe Didrikson.
Among the indignities suffered by the women was an ice water dousing administered by Didrikson as the women slept on the train west. Once in Los Angeles, they also faced the twin challenges of the fact that American Olympic Committee (AOC) President Avery Brundage was vocally opposed to the participation of women in Olympic track and field events and that officialdom was increasingly concerned about the dominance of black male track athletes such as Eddie Tolan and Ralph Metcalfe.
It was in this climate that the decision was made by AOC officials to replace Stokes and Pickett with two white West Coast sprinters they were deemed faster. Thus were both denied the chance to make history as well as to win gold as members of a world record setting quartet.
No full explanation was ever offered to the women as Brundage, the one official who could have insisted they compete, ducked controversy and more than lived up to his reputation for racial insensitivity.
Rumors of a row between Pickett and Didrikson fueled speculation as to the real reason for the decision, but both women refused to speculate on the controversy and returned home.
By 1935 Stokes had returned to competition winning many local races as well as capturing a national AAU title in the 50 yard dash at Chicago’s Soldier Field. And, on July 4, 1936, she earned a spot on her second US Olympic squad despite finishing 5th in the finals of the 100. Once again, she’d been placed on the 4 x 100 relay team.
Bolstered by a fundraising effort that saw her Malden neighbors raise $683.30 to cover the $500. she was required to secure for her trip to Berlin, she and Pickett were reunited on a team that also included Jesse Owens.
And, while Pickett made history as the first African-American female Olympic competitor in a losing effort in the 80-meter hurdles, several days later she and Stokes were once again replaced on the 4 x 100 relay team by lesser white runners. And once again, both were denied a shot at gold when the favored German team dropped the baton on their final pass.
For Stokes, it proved the suspicions she’d harbored prior to the Games, where in a piece in the Boston Chronicle she observed, “I feel I have more to fear from my own countrymen than from Nazi officials.”
On her return to Malden, a ticker tape parade of six thousand greeted her though family members acknowledge she carried the hurt until her death at the age of 64 in 1978.
In 2016, after President Barack Obama was made aware that a White House reception for the members of the 1936 US Olympic team had excluded African-American team members he extended an invitation to the families of those who’d been ostracized. Among the guests were Stokes’s only son, Wilfred Fraser, Jr., who had the honor of standing next to Michelle Obama in the official White House portrait of the gathering.
Stokes is remembered with a statue in the courtyard of her alma mater Malden High School that was partially funded by money raised by students in the mid-1980s.