CLEVELAND: How a Mississippian scared Morgan Freeman away from the running track

By RICK CLEVELAND,

This past weekend brought a drive through the Delta on a road not traveled in recent years. We were headed north on U.S. 49 East on a sunny spring Sunday, just passing the community of Sidon, when I saw the sign: “Willye B. White Memorial Highway.”

How appropriate and how wonderful! The late Willye B. White, one of the greatest female athletes in American history, would be pleased. We all should be.

Far too few Mississippians know the Willye White story, something we will try to correct in today's effort. I knew her late in her life as a warm, gracious, incredibly positive woman. For someone who accomplished so much in life, she was also remarkably humble.

White once said: “A dream without a plan is just a wish.”

Willye B. White had plans, big plans. Pour yourself another cup of coffee and read on...

Born on Dec. 31, 1939, in the Delta town of Money, she was raised by grandparents. At the age of 10, as a fourth grader, she began competing – and winning ribbons – for her high school track team. This she did, while spending many days picking cotton to help her family make ends meet.

She was a sprinter, a leaper and a long jumper, so gifted and so focused as a young teen, she often accumulated enough points individually to beat every other team in high school track meets. She attended high school at Broad Street High in Greenwood where she quickly gained fame far beyond the Delta and even Dixie.

Listen: In 1956, at age 16, she competed in Summer Olympics at Melbourne, Australia. Yes, and she won the silver medal in the long jump, marking the first time ever for an American woman to win an Olympic medal in the long jump. Imagine: 16 years old, a 10th grader, from one of the poorest towns in one of the poorest states in America – and she makes history halfway around the planet.

In 1959, White graduated from Broad Street, the same year she set an American record in the long jump. This wasn't just any record, either. White's American record stood for 16 years, an abnormally long period of time for a track and field record.

She was far from finished with her career – or her globetrotting. Before her career was over, she would compete in five different Olympiads, adding Japan, Mexico, Germany and Italy to the countries where she competed on Team USA. In Tokyo, in 1964, she won a silver medal in the 4x100 relay.

Long jumping legend Ralph Boston of Laurel competed in three of the same Olympiads. And Boston, who won gold, silver and bronze medals and later became the first African American inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, told me something I never knew about White.

“Do you know who her most famous high school classmate was in Greenwood?” Boston asked.

No.

“Ever heard of Morgan Freeman?”

Yes, of course.

“I was with Morgan one time and I asked him if he ran track in high school,” Boston said, already chuckling at the rest of the story. “Morgan said he didn't run track. She said if he had run track he knew he'd have to run against Willye B. White, and he didn't want to lose to a girl.”

White competed in 150 countries during track and field career and won medals and ribbons around the globe. She is the only American athlete to have competed in five different summer Olympiads. As a member of the U.S. Pan American Games team, she won gold in the long jump at Sao Paulo, Brazil.

When her career ended, she worked in healthcare and as a coach. She served on the U.S. Olympic Committee. She founded the Willye B. White Foundation, dedicated to helping underprivileged children develop self-esteem and become productive citizens.

White, who died in 2007 at age 68, is a member of 11 different Halls of Fames, including the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, into which she was inducted in 1981. Sports Illustrated named her one of the top 100 women athletes of the 20th century. And, as we now know, she has a stretch of highway named for her, which ends in Greenwood, the town where she once won track meets by herself and scared Morgan Freeman away from track and field.

Email syndicated columnist Rick Cleveland at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

 

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