The road that branches off Highway 41A near the Holiday Inn at Clarksville, Tenn. ascends in a long, dull curve between mounds of red earth topped with grass, then cuts through a group of bedraggled wooden houses, some weathered, some brightly painted like beach houses, and ends in a small housing project of low red-brick buildings, neatly mowed lawns, playgrounds and streets. Here, on a plateau hidden from the highway and from Clarksville's white citizens, is a Negro community called Lincoln Homes.
In one of these houses lives Wilma Rudolph Eldridge, the famous citizen of Clarksville who won three gold medals at the Olympics in Rome and who still holds records that make her the fastest woman in the history of track and field. Four years ago the whole world saw Wilma on television as she waved a white straw hat to a roaring crowd. The citizens of Clarksville, white and Negro alike, cheered her from the sidewalks of decorated streets and honored her at banquets.
Until late this summer, her American and European admirers had hoped that Wilma was secretly training for the Tokyo Olympics. By now they know that she did not choose to run. Instead, she elected to continue in her role of housewife, mother and teacher, devoting her time to her husband, Robert Eldridge, their three children, her mother, Blanche, her brother, Westly, and her sister, Charlene. Her oldest daughter, pretty Yolanda, is more unpredictable than a butterfly; her baby, Djuana, has to be carried a lot, because "she is already spoiled"; Wilma is still getting acquainted with 12-year-old Charles, whom the Eldridges adopted recently because his mother had put him in an orphanage and "I felt so sorry for him."
Most of all it was Djuana, born last May 19, who persuaded Wilma not to run at Tokyo. "I didn't have any time to practice." Wilma says happily. "I wanted to spend the summer with my baby."
A 60-yard race in an indoor meet in Los Angeles in January 1963 was the last one in which Wilma was seen in competition. She lost to Marilyn White, an unknown 18-year-old, and to Jutta Heine, who finished second, but it was not the disappointment about finishing third that made her retire. "I really didn't want to quit after that," she says. "But a few days later I had an appendectomy, and when I got out of the hospital I couldn't run for months."
Wilma was not required to run when she visited Tokyo in the spring of 1963. The international event that took her there was a church convention, and Wilma was a delegate. "I am an active member of the Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Clarksville," she says. "That's why I was sent to this convention. It lasted two weeks, and I was the only Negro in the U.S. delegation—some 300 people."
Not long after the trip, Wilma graduated from college and in the fall accepted a job as a teacher of second-grade children in a primary school in Clarksville and as a basketball and track coach in the high school. Although Wilma will not say what her yearly salary amounts to, it has put an end to her family's days of privation.
Before graduation Wilma had been able to earn only a little money supervising children in the playground at Lincoln Homes during her summer vacations. Her father had died of diabetes in April 1961, and her mother, Blanche Rudolph, was the breadwinner of the family as the maid of a restaurant owner.
Wilma's older daughter, Yolanda, lived with her grandparents during the years when Wilma was training and running. "She was born in 1958," says Wilma. "I had just gotten out of high school and was going to college in the fall. I felt pretty badly that I couldn't spend much time with her then." Wilma's husband, Robert Eldridge, is also Yolanda's father. "We went to high school together," says Wilma, "but my father felt that I was too young to get married. I was very close to my father, and I never did anything he didn't want me to do." When Wilma married Robert, her father was no longer alive. That was on July 20, 1963, one month after Wilma had won a divorce from her first husband, ending a marriage that had lasted 17 months.
Robert Eldridge, like Wilma, is 23 years old, and he still attends Tennessee State University in Nashville, where he is a member of the basketball team. "I hardly see him during basketball season," says Wilma. "That's all he does, play basketball. He is very good at it, but I never tell him that. I like to tease him." During his summer vacation Robert lives with his family. "He is very good at helping me with the baby, and he always irons his own pants," Wilma says. "He disappears when people come to see me," she adds. "You know, he is a little shy."