Photo and story by Joseph Choi / Contributing Writer
MTSU assistant professor and veteran filmmaker Tom Neff presented his new film, “Mr. Temple and the Tigerbelles,” at the Nashville Public Library on Thursday.
The screening was attended by Congressman Jim Cooper as well as Olympic medalists Ralph Boston, Edith McGuire and Wyomia Tyus, all of whom are former Tennessee State University track and field athletes.
The film explores the accomplishments of TSU coach Ed Temple as he developed one of the very first collegiate female track teams, the Tigerbelles. McGuire and Tyus were both members of this historic team. Temple, who preferred to be called “Mr. Temple” as a sign of respect, went on to produce 40 Olympic competitors, including the legendary Wilma Rudolph.
Speaking before the film, Cooper said, “The Tigerbelles are awesome. They will always be awesome, and I’m so proud that this film will show that.”
The film was first conceived during the dedication of a statue of Temple on TSU’s campus. Neff, 64, recognized how astonishing the Tigerbelles’ accomplishments were, especially for their time.
“Women athletes have always been treated as second-class citizens,” Neff said. “They were African-American which, at the time, made them even less likely to succeed.”
The film was largely produced with the help of MTSU students and faculty.
“It’s a piece that everyone should be proud of,” Neff said.
After the screening, several members of the audience took a moment to wipe their eyes. Boston, McGuire and Tyus took part in a question-and-answer session, along with award-winning journalists David Maraniss and Dwight Lewis. Criminal Court Clerk for Davidson County Howard Gentry Jr., who is the son of former TSU athletics director Howard Gentry Sr., was also present to answer questions.
The former athletes detailed what their experiences competing around the world as black female athletes during a time of racial turmoil and widespread sexism were like. Tyus and McGuire recalled how they would have to pack all of their food before traveling for a track meet because they were not sure if the restaurants or gas stations along the route would allow them inside. Most women in that time were strongly discouraged from participating in sports as it was considered unladylike to toil and sweat.
Both the film and Q&A session revealed just how seriously Temple took his job, despite having only been given “$300 and two sedans” by the university to start the program. He would scout runners from all over the country and always stressed that they would attend TSU to be students, first and foremost. He did not tolerate academic failure on his team and held his athletes to high standards, not just in their performance but in their character.
Commenting on how impressive Temple was, Tyus said, “Here’s a man that’s done all these great things. Not just on the athletic field, but to put all these women through college and get them an education at a time when there was only eight percent of women going to college. I’m not just talking about black women, but all women. He made it possible for so many black women to go to college out of that eight percent of women.”
Their moment in history placed an immense amount of stress on the team as Maraniss spoke on how the Tigerbelles were not only competing during the civil rights movement but were also in the midst of the Cold War, which placed a great deal of pressure on the U.S. to be more egalitarian. Temple, who was the coach for the U.S. Olympic Women’s track and field team twice, was well aware of these pressures.
When travelling for competitions, Temple always made sure that the Tigerbelles looked presentable and behaved politely. He also forbade them from participating in the civil rights protests, despite what their communities were urging them to do. Temple felt that their jobs were to be excellent runners, not to go out and protest.
Although they were not allowed to join in, the Tigerbelles were, without a doubt, a huge part of the movement purely through the feats they achieved, according to Neff.
Temple, who speaks at length in the film, passed away in 2016.
The film is currently going around the festival circuit and is not available online.
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