Tyler was the first African American woman to win an Olympic medal.
Mickey Patterson-Tyler earned a place in Olympic history when she won a bronze medal in the women’s 200-meter sprint at the 1948 Summer Olympic Games in London, England. The native New Orleanian became the first African American woman to win an Olympic medal, finishing third by one-tenth of a second. The very next day Alice Coachman, a high jumper from Albany, Georgia, became the first African American woman to win an Olympic gold medal.
An Aspiring Athlete
Born in New Orleans on September 26, 1926, to Lionel and Josephine Patterson, young Audrey developed an interest in sprint races while attending Danneel Elementary School. Track became her passion during secondary school at Gilbert Academy, where she heard African American Olympic champion Jesse Owens speak in 1944, encouraging students to follow their dreams in the face of adversity.
Upon graduation in 1947 Patterson-Tyler enrolled at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, the first historically black school to be recognized by the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. She dominated the competition in the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints at the Tuskegee Relays as well as the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) National Indoor meet. A ruptured appendix nearly claimed Patterson-Tyler’s life when the whites-only hospital in Wiley refused to treat her. Determined not to return to Texas, Patterson-Tyler recovered and earned an athletic scholarship to Tennessee State University in Nashville. The track program there to date has produced thirty-three other Olympians including Wilma Rudolph (1960), Ralph Boston (1960, 1964, 1968), and Wyomia Tyus (1964, 1968).
After nearly missing the Olympic trials in Providence, Rhode Island, when someone deliberately locked her in the women’s dressing room, Patterson-Tyler easily won the 200-meter sprint and qualified for the Olympic team. When she failed to win the 100-meter sprint, it was the first race she had lost since 1944.
Patterson-Tyler was among nine African American female track athletes to compete at the 1948 Olympic Games in London. She won her preliminary heat on a rain-soaked track, besting the hometown favorite, Margaret Walker. She finished second in the semifinal heat to Fanny Blankers-Koen, the “Flying Housewife” from the Netherlands, who would go on to win the gold medal, her third of the 1948 games. In the finals Patterson-Tyler ran the 200 meters in 25.2 seconds. It took the judges forty-five minutes to determine that she had indeed finished in third place, one-tenth of a second ahead of Shirley Strickland of Australia.
“When I learned that I had placed, it was the greatest feeling that you could possibly have,” she said later. “‘This is it,’ I thought. Never in my life could I feel so happy.”
Honored and Rebuffed
She returned to the United States to a brief reception with President Truman at the White House, but there was little fanfare or recognition on her return to Louisiana. Friends and family organized a tribute and invited New Orleans Mayor de Lesseps S. “Chep” Morrison, but he did not attend.
In a 1976 interview for the Times-Picayune, Patterson-Tyler recalled that “Mayor Morrison sent a telegram saying I was a credit to my race, and that was the extent of it. … I felt I was getting the cold shoulder from New Orleans. A parade was suggested downtown, but it didn’t come off, either. “I felt I’d done something for the city, and it wasn’t appreciated. I was bitterly disappointed.”
Patterson-Tyler was further snubbed when she was denied access to the whites-only City Park running track in 1950. “That stayed with her for years,” her husband, Ron Tyler, told the Times-Picayune. “There were very few places that had facilities that were good enough for her to train.” In a gesture rare for a time of strict segregation, Loyola University coach Jim McCafferty offered his campus’s track to the Olympic medalist.
Patterson-Tyler completed her education, graduating from Southern University in Baton Rouge. She married Ronald Tyler and became a physical education teacher at an elementary school in Lutcher. In 1964 the family relocated to San Diego, California, and the following year she established “Mickey’s Missles,” a track club for children ages six to eighteen that produced at least two future Olympians, Jackie Thompson (1972) and Dennis Mitchell (1988, 1992, 1996). It is estimated that she coached more than 5,000 children through this program.
Patterson-Tyler maintained her involvement in track and field, serving for several years as a vice president of the AAU. She was the manager of the US women’s track team that toured the Soviet Union and Europe in 1969 and remained in that position through 1974. In 1982 she established the Martin Luther King Freedom Run in San Diego, an event that draws competitive runners from around the country. A noted community leader, she was recognized by the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women and was named Woman of the Year by the AAU, the city of San Diego, and the Press Club of San Diego.
Patterson-Tyler was inducted into the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame in 1978 and the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 2000.
She died at the age of sixty-nine on August 23, 1996, at her home in National City, California.