Never Done Making History
Department of Nike Archives
On a Saturday night in 1978, the Tigerbelles set a world record in the 880-yard relay—a historic moment for the team and the first world record for Nike. Yet that's only a sliver of the greater legacy of these athletes.<br>From an era of exceptional performance, for a more inclusive future.
One February night in 1978, the women's relay team at HBCU Tennessee State University—known as the Tigerbelles—set a world record in the indoor 880m with a time of 1:38.5. This race, completed by the all-Black team of Deborah Jones, Brenda Morehead, Chandra Cheeseborough and Ernestine Davis, delivered the first-ever world record set by a Nike-sponsored team, collegiate or professional.
For a small, under-funded Historically Black University, the World Record was nothing short of a triumph. For the Tigerbelles, though, it was only a snapshot of a rich legacy, one that includes not only athletic dominance in the era before Title IX, but activism on behalf of the Civil Rights movement and female athletes everywhere.
The relay team that captured the World Record, via TSU's 1978 Yearbook
A Storied Legacy
"[The Tigerbelles] is probably one of the most special things that's happened in sport, and Black women also", the former Tigerbelle Martha Watson told The Guardian in 2021. Watson competed for the Tigerbelles in the late '60s and reached the Olympics four straight times before being inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1987.
The Tigerbelles formally began through the partnership between Mae Faggs Starr—known as "The Mother of the Tigerbelles"—and coach Ed Temple in the early 1950s.
At age 20, Faggs Starr won the 4x100 relay on the world's stage. Right after, Temple recruited her for his brand-new athletics programme at Tennessee State despite the fact that women's athletic scholarships were virtually non-existent before Title IX. At TSU, Faggs Starr was joined by a young Tennessee-native and athletics icon Wilma Rudolph, who, in 1960, went on to become the first woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics.
On the shoulders of women like Faggs Starr and Rudolph, Tennessee State built an athletic dynasty.
"People thought that Flo-Jo was the first one that had all the makeup, but that was us!"
"You can run like an ox, but you're going to look like a fox"—Ed Temple
But performance was only one aspect of the Tigerbelles programme. Temple's goal was to create upwards mobility for his students through athletics paired with education, a baseline that would lead directly to wider societal change within the Tigerbelles' orbit. In his time with US Track and Field, Temple coached 40 female Olympians, all of whom received university degrees.
"Ed Temple was a giant of athletics to me", former Tigerbelle Chandra Cheeseborough told Nike's Trained podcast. "He opened doors for women's track. He was a father figure and he had great character".
"What I took from Coach Temple was education", said Cheeseborough. "He would always say athletics opens the door but education keeps it open". Cheeseborough eventually took over as head coach at TSU in 1994, later ascending to director of athletics for both women's and men's track, the role she holds currently.
Chandra Cheeseborough and Brenda Moorehead were featured in Nike's internal athletics newsletter after finishing 1st and 2nd in the 60-yard dash (approx. 55 m) in 1979.
Tigerbelles for Change
This education bred activism, as the Tigerbelles came of age in the Jim Crow South. They experienced America's unique brand of prejudice directly, and often. Once, a bus driver refused to drive them to an important qualifier in Abilene, TX. Another time, a lack of Black-serving establishments on the route between New York and Tennessee demanded a 22-hours-straight drive to Madison Square Garden.
Despite the injustice the Tigerbelles had to face along the way, they showed up consistently and dominated at every meet.
It wasn't just that the Tigerbelles overwhelmed the competition, it's how they did it. Through colourful warmups, state-of-the-art spikes and detailed hair and makeup, the Tigerbelles communicated an unforgettable visual presence no matter where they competed.
"People thought that Flo-Jo was the first one that had all the makeup", said Cheeseborough. "But that was us!"
"We brought a lot of attention", said Ernestine Davis. "You have women coming in dressed from head to toe, your Nike bag on your arms, and people are just standing back watching, like 'Whoa!'".
The importance of aesthetics to the Tigerbelles had an important historical precedent. In the 1964 Games in Tokyo, Wyomia Tyus won gold in the 100-metre sprint. In 1968, she did it again, becoming the first athlete, man or woman, to repeat her title in the world's most famous race. However, her victory in the race ended up as a footnote to the subtle protest she unveiled that day, as she swapped out the team-mandated white shorts for dark, navy-blue ones, an event that connected the Tigerbelles legacy and aesthetic directly to political action.
"I was not doing it for any type of glory or anything", Tyus told The Guardian in 2021. "It was just for me as a person, as a human being, and my feelings and what I thought about what was going on in the world, and how women—Black women especially—were treated".
Wyomia Tyus & Edith McGuire Duvall come home to TSU campus on 28 October 1964
Two days after Tyus won the 100m, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their black-gloved fists on the podium for their famous demonstration for human rights. Though Tyus denied credit for influencing their protest, when she won gold in the 4x100 a few days later, she dedicated her medal to Smith and Carlos in a gesture of solidarity.
These international experiences were eye-opening to the Tigerbelles. "The Olympic Games introduced me to the real world", said athlete Willye White. "Before my first Olympics, I thought the whole world consisted of cross burnings and lynchings. After 1956, I found there were two worlds, Mississippi and the rest of the world".
A Bright Future
The Tigerbelles athletic tradition would move into the Title IX era but still too few know of their impact. These women redefined the world of athletics and continue to rack up university championships and send athletes to international races. Eight Tigerbelles are National Track and Field Hall of Famers: Mae Faggs Starr, Wilma Rudolph, Wyomia Tyus, Chandra Cheeseborough, Edith McGuire Duvall, Willye White, Madeline Manning Mims and Martha Watson.
From right to left: Mae Faggs Starr, Chandra Cheeseborough, Edit McGuire, Kathy McMillan, Helen Blake, Brenda Moorehead, Wilma Rudolph, Cynthia Thompson
In celebration of Nike's shared history with the Tigerbelles, we have commissioned a large-scale installation commemorating the Tigerbelles to be displayed at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. The piece is composed of individual athletics spikes, recreating the iconic photograph of the Tigerbelles crossing the finishing line during the National AAU Track and Field Championships in June 1978. Its size and long-lasting material was specifically chosen to make their legacy visible forever.
"To look back and see people who are like, this is what I can do, and this is how I'm going to do it, and see that ripple effect—I view myself as a descendant of that work and labour".
Anna Cockrell, Olympic Hurdler & Activist
Nike commissioned a Tigerbelles tribute to be displayed at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN.
Olympic hurdler and activist Anna Cockrell says her generation directly benefits from this rich legacy. "The way that they leveraged their role in athletics and as representatives of the United States abroad, then continued reaching back into their communities they were from really resonates with me", she says. "To look back and see people who are like, this is what I can do and this is how I'm going to do it and see that ripple effect—I view myself as a descendant of that work and labour".
As Nike looks back on its first 50 years, we decided that the story of the Tigerbelles deserved a heightened status not only in our mutual history, but in the timeline of American sport as well.
"You had a different walk about you because you knew that you come from this legacy of great women, and not only Wilma Rudolph", Davis said. "They are the ones who paved the way. And we hit the ground running".