A pioneer in women’s track & field, Nell Jackson served the sport as both a coach and an administrator. In 1956, she became the first Black female to coach an Olympic Team, and she later served as vice president and as secretary of The Athletics Congress (forerunner to USATF).
Jackson began her career in sports as a highly talented teenager. At 15, she competed in her first national championships. A year later, in 1945, she placed second in the 200m at both the indoor and outdoor AAU championships, losing both times to Olympic champion Stella Walsh.
As a student at Tuskegee University (then Tuskegee Institute) from 1947-51, Jackson was a member of the 1948 Olympic Team and also competed in the first Pan-American Games in 1951, taking second in the 200m and running on the winning sprint relay. She also set an American record of 24.2 seconds in the 200m in 1949 and won two national titles in 1950: in the 200m (over Stella Walsh), and as the anchor on Tuskegee’s winning 4x100m relay.
After graduating in 1951, Jackson pursued a master’s degree at Springfield College, graduating in 1953. She later earned a PhD from the University of Iowa in 1962.
Jackson returned to her alma mater in 1953 as women’s track & field coach. Her coaching talents were not limited to track & field – she also was the first men’s swimming coach at Tuskegee, starting the program in 1958. She later coached at Iowa, Illinois State, Illinois, and Michigan State. At Illinois, she coached the Illini to a national team championship in the 1970 outdoor season. Jackson coached fellow USTFCCCA Hall of Famer Barbara Jacket at Tuskegee University, and one of her pupils at Michigan State was Karen Dennis, current women’s coach at The Ohio State University.
Jackson also served as an assistant athletic director at Michigan State, and when she retired from full-time coaching in 1981, she accepted a position as director of physical education and intercollegiate athletics and professor in the department of physical education at the State University of New York at Binghamton.
In 1956 and 1972, Jackson served as the U.S. Olympic Team’s women’s head coach; she was the first African American to be named head coach of a U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team, men’s or women’s. Her ties to track & field administration went even further than these coaching assignments. From 1979-88, she served as an officer of TAC; she also worked with both the U.S. Olympic Committee and the IAAF.
Jackson is honored in several Halls of Fame, among them the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Hall of Fame, the USATF Hall of Fame, and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. Several awards are also given each year in her honor, including awards given by the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators, by Michigan State’s Varsity Alumni `S’ Club, and by Binghamton University.