Margaret Matthews interview

Margaret Matthews won a bronze medal in the 4×100 relay in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia

1959 Relay Team: (L to R) Isabelle Daniels, Margaret Matthews, Barbara Jones and Lucinda Williams

Dwight: What was it like being at Tennessee State and being a Tigerbelle?

It was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had in my life. And I am just thankful to the university and Coach Temple for giving me the opportunity to come to Tennessee State because that allowed me to become an Olympian.

There was a young lady by the name of Mary McNabb who went to the same high school that I did in Atlanta, Georgia and she was a substitute on that 52 (Olympic) team.

But she was a great sprinter, in fact she was the Georgia champion until she graduated from David T. Howard High School.

And she was so outstanding and I always wanted to be like Mary. We had the same track coach in high school so I went to Tennessee State with Mary McNabb on my mind.

She didn’t get an opportunity to run because those young ladies who went over there stayed healthy so they were the four who ran in the 4×100 relay.

That was the beginning.

Dwight: How old were you when you first started running?

I was in junior high school when I started running in Atlanta. Went on to David T. Howard High School and became the Georgia state champion, in basketball and track and field.

It just blossomed from there.

We used to go down to Tuskegee for a big meet, and I was the champion out of Tuskegee and when I went to Tennessee State it was a new beginning almost for me because all of the Tigerbelles who were there were state champions.

Coach Temple brought in state champions. If you just ran track that wasn’t enough. You had to be a champion. And everyone who was there when I went there was a state champion.

Dwight: What was it about running that inspired you?

Well, I ran in junior high school, and in high school I was the fastest girl or boy in my community.

Mary McNabb really set the stage for me. She had made the Olympic team and that was a goal I had set when I was in high school.

I wanted to be an Olympian. And that’s where it all started.

Dwight: How did you get to Tennessee State? Did Coach Temple recruit you?

Coach Temple used to come to Tuskegee to see all of the high schools all over Georgia, Alabama – it was something like a major track meet at Tuskegee.

And Coach Temple used to come down there to the track meet to watch outstanding high school runners participate.

I was the champion in the 50, the 100, long jump and I anchored my high school’s 4×100 relay.

And my high school coach was a very good friend to Coach Temple. That was Marian Morgan, who coached at David T. Howard High School in Atlanta.

She worked on her master’s and received her master’s from Tennessee State University, working during the summer as Coach Temple’s assistant coach.

I had heard about the Tigerbelles and I knew about them .. they  were great champions early on and I wanted to be there because I wanted to be a champion.

And I wanted to go to the Olympics. And all of it just fell in place.

Dwight: Did you come to a summer program in 1955, or when did you graduate from high school?

I graduated in 1953. When I first finished high school I went to Bethune-Cookman (in Daytona Beach, Florida) that summer because my high school coach, Marian Morgan, was from Florida.

They didn’t have a female track team down there and they were trying to use me as a buffer to build a track team. But when I got to Bethune-Cookman – I stayed there one semester.

They were on the quarter system, I think. But it just didn’t fit into what my goals were.

And after one quarter there I left because I was not happy. When you participate in athletics – I don’t care what you are doing – you’ve got to be a happy camper.

And if you are not happy you are not going to do well. This is everything you do. I don’t care what you’re doing. This is everything you do. I don’t care what you’re involved in. If you are not happy doing that, you are not going to do well.

I left Bethune-Cookman and CYO (Catholic Youth Organization in Chicago where Barbara Jones ran) had some outstanding runners at that time.

Kirksey (????) was the track coach there and he called my parents because he learned that I did not want to be at Bethune-Cookman.

So he asked me to come there that summer (1954) to run with CYO, and I got there but I just didn’t like it.

I ran with them but I just didn’t like it. After that summer I came back home.

That’s when Coach Temple called me. He asked if I wanted to come to Tennessee State.

He had seen me run with CYO out of Chicago that summer. My mother said, yes, and there was another young lady out of Booker T. Washington from Atlanta by the name of Margaret Davis, who was already running for Tennessee State.

We were competitors in high school and I used to beat her all the time but she was a year ahead of me and already at Tennessee State.

That’s how I got to Tennessee State. Coach Temple had seen me and my high school coach had been talking to him about my coming to Tennessee State, and he called and asked if I would be interested in coming.

I have had two good coaches in my life. One was Ed Temple and the other was Marian Morgan.

And I don’t know where you can fit this next statement in but I see coaches on TV, I hear them using profanity and cursing the athletes and doing some things that I have never experienced, Coach Temple never yelled at any of us, he never raised his voice at any of us and he certainly has never used profanity with any of us.

This is the thing that really drew me close to the Tennessee State University Tigerbelles. Because we were treated like young ladies.

He said what he meant, and he meant what he said.

You learned that very early when you went there doing the summer. He brought a lot of high school athletes in there to run the summer program.

And he would tell you what the rules were and if you didn’t follow them then you were sent home.

We ran during the summer and we had a junior team and a senior team, and you ran junior according to your age and if you were beyond that age you had to run senior.

It was just an awesome experience. I am so happy that I was given the opportunity to run for Ed Temple.

I miss him dearly, all of us do and he set a standard that I don’t think can be matched ever for women track and field.

I feel very strongly about that.

Dwight: That standard was, or is?

That standard is to always be a young lady, you can run track, you can be a female athlete but be a young lady, work hard, do not dissipate. I can tell you now I have never witnessed any of the Tigerbelles dissipating.

They have always taken being a Tigerbelle very seriously. And we really kind of monitor each other.

If we saw a Tigerbelle going off what Coach Temple asked us to do, like if they didn’t go to the library – we had to go to the library every night it was open and Coach Temple used to come to the library to be sure that we were there getting our lessons.

And if any of us sort of veered toward not going to the library, we would police each other. And this is how we became so close to each other.

We were family at Tennessee State University. We were like sisters. It was just a wonderful experience.

Dwight: What was practice like?

It was tough. It was really tough. We ran cross country. We ran hard against each other. Going to a meet was the easiest thing for a Tigerbelle.

Running in a national championship was really easy. The toughest part, for me and others, was in our practice.

We had to run against each other and if we didn’t do well in practice, he wouldn’t take us on trips. He left us on campus.

Dwight: Did you ever get left?

Yes, one time. When the team came back. When I first got there. That first trip they made was left on the campus, one time and after they got back, I told Coach Temple, and I looked him straight in the face and I said, you will never leave me on this campus again when you take the Tigerbelles on a trip.

And it was true. I was never left again because I learned then how important it was to perform well, to practice hard and to do well.

And that’s what happened. Yes, I was left one time when I first got to Tennessee State.

Dwight: Do you remember where they went?

They went to New York, they went to an indoor meet in New York. I will never forget it.

Dwight: So what was going to Melbourne (Australia for the 56 Olympics) like?

Different. Exciting.

Dwight: Had you ever been on a plane before?

No, I had never. (But the team caught a plane to go to Los Angeles to train for the Olympics leading up to the Games) Before I left Nashville to go to Los Angeles. Remember now, we flew from Nashville to Los Angeles to train before we went to Melbourne.

That was exciting, and if you see the pictures all of us have on our hats and our gloves, and we were so excited.

And I think we looked kind of cute when you see that picture, the six of us.

Dwight: So you get over there and one of the things in the letter to you, he said, “………….. always remember what you are out there for. Don’t forget people want to see you fail. I want them to envy you. So win.

See Dwight, I cannot recall the letter. If Coach Temple had been coach of the 56 team, I probably would not have been a bronze medal winner because I was a long jumper.

And we had Tigerbelles who had made the team as sprinters. Nell Jackson (the coach of the 56 women’s track and field team) was familiar with my ability as a sprinter because we had gone to Tuskegee every year to participate.

So, Nell Jackson, who was the coach of the women’s team in 56, held time trials and everyone had to participate except Mae Faggs.

Mae Faggs was the godmother of all of us, and rightfully so. She had done so well.

She didn’t have to participate. She was going to be on the relay team. And Nell Jackson told us, the top three in the 100 will run with Mae Faggs on the 4×100 relay.

And I won the 100 in the trials. So that’s how I got on the relay team. The order of the relay team was Mae Faggs started, I ran second, Wilma Rudolph ran third and Isabelle Daniels ran anchor.

So that’s how I was able to be selected for the 4×100 relay team and was able to earn a bronze medal.

You see, Dwight, for four years I was unbeaten on American soil by an American. I was unbeaten in the long jump. For four consecutive years.

Willye White beat me in Melbourne but I was never beaten on American soil by an American.

I am the first American citizen to jump 19 feet, and I am the first to jump 20 feet. I was the American record holder for four consecutive years in the long jump.

Now, I was second in the Pan American Games in 1959, by a half of an inch.

See, I was captain of the Tigerbelles in 1958, and that’s a great honor.

I won three gold medals in the nationals in 1958. I won the 100, I won the long jump and I anchored the 4×100.

And whatever you do, whatever you write, I want you to be sure to highlight that, because that was a great honor for me.

Dwight: So, when you finished school did you go back home? I know you married Jesse Wilburn….

No, I married in 1957. I was married when I ran track at Tennessee State.

I married in 1957 and I graduated in 1959. Major was health, recreation, physical education and dance. They had all those lumped in together. I got a B.S. degree from Tennessee State and went on to get a master’s degree from then Memphis State University, now the University of Memphis. Fifteen hours short of a doctorate degree.

Taught and later became a principal.

Dwight: Did Coach Temple appreciate you getting married in 1957? What did he say about that?

He certainly didn’t. He didn’t appreciate us having no boyfriends or anything.  He was very angry.

Dwight: What happened, and I know Jesse played football so he wasn’t happy about that?

I was jumping over 19 feet in the long jump and Jesse was running close to 19 touchdowns. It was a big mess. No, he didn’t like it at all.

Dwight: What did he say to you?

We worked it out. He finally accepted it, and remember now I was captain of the Tigerbelles. He was really angry with me but after all of that hullabaloo I became captain of the Tigerbelles in 58.

Because I didn’t graduate until 1959 and Jesse graduated in 1958.

Dwight: Did you’ll hide the marriage from him at first?

We hid it from everybody until it came out in the paper. We didn’t know they printed marriage licenses and marriages. When you go to the courthouse to get the marriage license we didn’t know they printed that.

Got married at the courthouse. And he did not like it at all.

When you are young you do a lot of silly things but it worked out because we have been married 61 years now.

Parents of two boys, one of whom played on the Washington Redskins Super Bowl winning team with Doug Williams.

Dwight: Running.

See Dwight, I did a lot of things in high school. I was Miss David T. Howard High School. I was the most outstanding female athlete.

I was the head majorette. I was captain of the basketball team and I finished with honors, a member of the National Honor Society.

I was all-state basketball in Georgia for three consecutive years and captain of the basketball team for the last two years.

Dwight: How did you become so competitive?

That’s a good question. Nobody in my family was on the athletic side. And I was the first person in my family to finish high school.

And you know how you get in the community and play softball, how you get in the street and run in the evening— I have always wanted to be the very best in everything that I have done, and I am still that way.

I have always wanted to be the top person in whatever I did. And I don’t mind working hard. I have worked hard from the first time that Coach Temple left me on that campus I have never stopped working hard.

That taught me a valuable lesson.

Dwight: Tell me about your family, your parents.

Just like other parents of children I grew up with, all of us were poor.

My daddy worked in construction, and my mother worked in a laundry. She was a pressor.

Father was George Arthur Matthews and mother was Catherine Matthews.

I really didn’t know I was poor until I got to Tennessee State University. There were so many students there who came from families with money. Some of them had a lot of nice things.

The things that I had were nice, I thought, I didn’t know I was poor until I went to Tennessee State because I ate everyday, I went to school dressed real nice —I had to because I became Miss David T. Howard High School.

Dwight: Why do you say you were poor?

We used stamps to get food and clothing. I can’t remember, Dwight, wanting for things. I have never wanted a lot of things that I don’t need.

I am like that now. I am satisfied with how blessed and fortunate I have been during my lifetime.

So, I don’t want for a lot of things because I am able to provide because of the opportunity I was given at Tennessee State University to become the person that I am today.

Dwight: If somebody asked today, who is Margaret Matthews, what would you say?

I would say she is a person with a lot of character. A person who has a lot of respect for everyone, a person who loves the Lord, and Dwight, I would give you the hat off my head and it was raining and you needed it to stay dry yourself.

I’m that type of person.

I love my family. I have one brother, and I had one sister. She has passed.

Dwight: Did Coach Temple help you to become certain ways?

I took that to Tennessee State with me. Mrs. Morgan instilled that in me before I got to Tennessee State but it was nurtured through Coach Temple who reminded all of us about our character – to be a young lady, to always look nice – he didn’t care where we were going – from the dormitory to the cafeteria.

I took that to Tennessee State with me. Mrs. Morgan instilled that in me before I got to Tennessee State but it was nurtured through Coach Temple who reminded all of us about our character – to be a young lady, to always look nice – he didn’t care where we were going – from the dormitory to the cafeteria.

He wanted us to develop into being somebody. The Tigerbelles when I was there were the most wonderful women I have ever been associated with. 

I was there with Mae Faggs, Isabelle Daniels, Lucinda Williams—they still have outstanding character. We helped each other, we loved each other –they broke the rule when Mae Faggs was born because she helped all of us.

She was something like a second coach to us. She was just there. I can remember when we were getting ready to go through the gate to get on the plane in Nashville (to go to Los Angeles to train for the 56 Olympic Games in Melbourne) the last thing I heard Mr. Temple say to Mae Faggs – he told Mae Faggs, “Take care of Skeeter.’’

Remember now there were six of us but Skeeter was the youngest. And she was in high school and Willye White was in high school.

But Coach Temple said to Mae, and that’s the last thing I heard him say —to any of us before we went through the gate to board the plane.

He said, “Take care of Skeeter.’’

She (Mae Faggs, who had been to the 48 and 52 Olympic Games not as a Tigerbelle) went beyond that. She took care of all of us.

When Mae spoke, everybody listened. And Dwight, I miss them so. I miss her. I miss Skeeter. I miss Willye. We were just so close. We were a family.

In fact, when I went to Tennessee State everybody who attended Tennessee State was family.

I don’t know how the students are now but all of us took care of each other. We cared about each other. Our instructors cared about us.

I tell people all the time, the foundation that I received at Tennessee State University is one that has carried me through life.

The educational foundation, and I could talk to anybody, anytime, on any subject, because of the educational foundation I received at Tennessee State University.

And I am so appreciative of when and I received the education that I got from Tennessee State.

Dwight: Were you the oldest or youngest of the three children in your family?

I was the youngest. My sister was the oldest, my brother and then myself.

Dwight: And your brother’s name is ….?

Douglas. My sister was Annie.

Dwight: Where did you’ll live in Atlanta?

We lived off of Auburn Avenue. I lived on Butler Street.

And believe it or not, you know how you have these short blocks in these communities. You still have blocks – even now. There was someone in my family who lived in every house on the block. That’s how big my family was. My mother was the oldest of 25 children.

Now Dwight, there were no multiple births. She was a member of the King family. Everybody in the community knew us.

Everybody in the high school knew us. We were members of the King family. You know how proud I am to be the first to graduate high school in my family and then college.

Dwight: So your mother and father had not graduated from high school?

Margaret: No, neither one.

Dwight: How big was the house that you lived in. What type of house was it?

It was a shotgun. It was three rooms. My mother and father occupied the front room as we called it, my sister, brother and I occupied the middle room and then we had the kitchen.

Most African American families who grew up in the 40s and 50s, they grew up in shotgun houses. It didn’t matter whether you were in Atlanta, Nashville or Memphis – you have heard people talk about that.

All of us grew up in shotgun houses. But I don’t want the focus of our conversation, Dwight, to be that I was so poor I wasn’t eating.

Dwight: That’s because you had everything you needed?

I had everything that I needed. I never wanted anything that my parents weren’t able to give me and my siblings.

And I was very happy to live the life that I lived growing up. I talked to people all the time about my life. I am very proud of the way I was brought up.

I had shoes to wear. My mother used to make our clothes out of — they used to sell flour in a bag and my mother used to take the bag and make dresses for my sister and I. And it worked well.

And even now I love looking nice because I grew up looking nice. Always clean. Always respectful of elderly people. I don’t care who you are I am going to respect you.

Dwight: Let me ask you this, we haven’t talked about Mrs. Temple. Could you talk about her role?

Mrs. Temple was something like a surrogate mother to all of us.  You know females need a woman for many reasons to communicate with.

And we could go to Mrs. Temple if there was a female problem that we had, a female concern that we had. We could always go to Mrs. Temple.

She did everything for us that our parents would have done had we been at home.

We were not problem Tigerbelles. It wasn’t hard. Anyone could have managed us because we were obedient athletes.

All you had to do was tell us what you wanted us to do and we did it.

All you had to do was tell us what the rules were and we did it.

Now you are always going to have one or two who will challenge you sometime. But they can always reel them back in.

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