Audrey Patterson-Tyler – Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame
Track & Field Athlete/Coach, 1940-96
Gilbert Academy/Tennessee State/1948 Olympics
Audrey “Mickey” Patterson-Tyler won a bronze medal in the 200-meter dash at the 1948 Olympic Games in London to become the United States’ first black woman to win an Olympic medal. Born in New Orleans, Patterson attended Danneel Elementary School and Gilbert Academy (which closed in 1949 and was located on the site of the current De La Salle High School).
A chance encounter set Patterson on her path to greatness. In 1944, legendary Olympian Jesse Owens spoke at Patterson’s school. He said, “There is a boy or girls in this audience who will go to the Olympics.” And Patterson felt that he was talking directly to her, despite the fact that African Americans in general, and Black women specifically, had limited opportunities in athletics at this time.
She worked relentlessly on the track and attended Wiley College in Texas, winning the 100-yard and 220-yard dashes at the prestigious Tuskegee Relays. She capped the season by winning the AAU Indoor National Title in the 220-yard event. However, she suffered a ruptured appendix and the whites-only hospital in Marshall, Texas, refused to treat her. That experience led to her transferring to Tennessee State University in Nashville. In 1948, she would set an American record in the 220-yard dash at 26.4 seconds.
At the 1948 Olympic Trials in Providence, R.I., Patterson nearly missed her opportunity to compete. She managed to burn her leg with an iron in the morning and then was accidentally, or deliberately, depending on the account, locked in the dressing room. Her coach found her just in time for her to race to the starting line and she blazed to a 25.3 second time in the 200-meters to win Gold. She also placed second in the 100-meter dash with a time of 12.4 seconds (the first loss of her career).
The 200-meter dash was a thrilling race at the London Olympics with a photo-finish for places two through four. It was eventually determined that Patterson had finished third, making her the first Black women from the United States to earn a medal. The following day, Alice Coachman became the first Black female Gold medal winner when she won the high jump.
Audrey Patterson meets President Harry Truman
“When I learned that I had placed, it was the greatest feeling that you could possibly have,” she said. “’This is it,’ I thought. Never in my life could I feel so happy.”
Upon returning to the United States, she met President Truman at a White House reception, but sadly, the New Orleans Times-Picayune failed to acknowledge that Patterson was a New Orleanian in its Olympic coverage. Two afternoon newspapers in the city, The States and The Item, did make the New Orleans connection.
“I try to be humble, like a good Christian,” Patterson-Tyler told The Item. “But when I see my name (among Olympic medalists), I just crinkle all over. Please forgive me, God.”
To add to the indignities for the Olympic medalist, she was not allowed to train in City Park due to the color of her skin. However, Loyola University director of athletics Jim McCafferty, also a Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Famer, offered Loyola’s facilities for her training.
In 1949, she had another undefeated season on the track and was named the nation’s top female athlete by the Amateur Athletic Union.
Following her collegiate career, there were no opportunities for athletes to make money through competition and Patterson went into education. In 1964, she and her husband, Ronald Tyler, moved to San Diego where she continued teaching, and where she would become an important figure in the development of young runners. In 1965, she set up a track club known as Mickey’s Missiles. It began as a girls club but soon accepted boys as well. She started the club with just three girls but it would grow to feature more than 125 young runners. Two of her runners – would represent the United States in the Olympic Games – Jackie Thompson (200 meters, 1972) and Dennis Mitchell (100 meters, 1988, 1992, 1996). It is estimated that Patterson-Tyler mentored over 5,000 young competitors during her time with the club.
She managed the U.S. women’s track team that toured the Soviet Union and Germany in 1969 and coached the team that competed against a Russian squad in Texas in 1974. In 1982, she founded the Martin Luther King Freedom Run in San Diego.
She was a past first vice president of the Amateur Athletic Union, a director of the Pacific Southwest Association and the YMCA, a governor of the Western District of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women, and a member of the Urban League, NAACP and 1984 Olympic Spirit Team.
She received the San Diego Woman of the Year and Press Club Headliner awards. She is also a member of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
Patterson, who was born September 27, 1926, died on August 23, 1996 at the age of 69. In addition to being inducted into the Allstate Sugar Bowl’s Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame in 1978, she was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 2000.
MORE READING: “Audrey Patterson Tyler set the London Olympics on fire”, Louisiana Weekly, July 23, 2012
“Mickey Patterson-Tyler: Legendary track star”, The San Diego Union-Tribune, August 8, 2020