Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Black Olympian, coach, teacher marks 85 years of quiet determination


On a basketball court some 60 years ago, players called her Trick Shot. Later, thousands of students would call her Ms. Manuel. Now, those close by know her simply as Mama T.

Theresa Manuel has shown them all that she could leap hurdles — literally and figuratively.

She made history in 1948 as the first African-American woman from Florida to compete in the Olympics, then she overcame barriers of segregation to become an influential educator in Hillsborough County for 38 years.

These days, the 85-year-old works on word puzzles and watches local sports teams and game shows on TV with her cousin Cynthia Flowers in a small house near West Tampa Elementary School. She's reading Tony Dungy's Quiet Strength.

It's a concept that fits Manuel, who as a little girl born in Port Tampa never dreamed of all she would achieve.

• • •

Theresa Manual went to segregated schools, rode in the back of streetcars and used separate restrooms and water fountains than whites.

Her mother was a homemaker; her stepfather a porter on a train. He coached a boys baseball team, and that was her first experience with sports.

She was a teen in downtown Tampa the first time she challenged racial boundaries, hinting of a strength that would grow.

"Watch me," she remembers telling a friend. "I'm going to see the difference in the water."

She sneaked to the "whites only" fountain and took a sip. She laughs now, but acknowledged she would have been in for a mess of trouble if caught.

She stepped over that dividing line again in 1948, as she traveled with her teammates from Tuskegee Institute on a cruise ship to London en route to the Olympics.

Women had been first allowed to compete in Olympic track and field events 20 years earlier, but sports were still considered unladylike by many.

The Tuskegee women's track team had been unbeatable in the United States. The athletes were treated like equals on a ship outfitted with a swimming pool and a gym. Manuel remembers a sea that went on forever, gorging on white potatoes (not part of her usual staple) and running laps on the deck.

Her coach had given her $20, and she bought a rain jacket to keep dry in a drizzly London. Manuel ran the 80-meter hurdles, was the third leg in the 440-yard team relay, and threw a javelin. Although she didn't rank, she treasured the experience. Her teammate Alice Coachman won the high jump, becoming the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal.

Back in the States, the young women met President Harry Truman. The next year, Manuel graduated from Tuskegee. She turned down several marriage offers, she said, and came back to care for her ailing mother and teach at her alma mater, Middleton High School.

She coached the girls basketball team through three state championships — losing wasn't an option, she told the girls. Manuel says her basketball team had not lost a single game in four years at Tuskegee.

She would see a tall girl in the halls at Middleton and ask if she could play basketball. If the girl said no, Manuel replied, "Well, you're going to learn."

When Middleton closed in 1971 under a court desegregation order, she transferred to Hillsborough High. She coached basketball, swimming, majorettes and dancerettes before retiring in 1988.

School Board chairwoman Doretha Edgecomb remembers her at Middleton as a teacher who set high standards for students, no matter what the circumstances.

"She said what she meant and meant what she said," Edgecomb said.

• • •

Manuel loves to watch sports on TV and typically roots for any Florida team, especially the Buccaneers.

She keeps an eye out for women's basketball games, although she said she rarely finds them televised.

Last Sunday, she and her cousin, Flowers, hosted a Super Bowl party with chili and corned beef dip for a handful of friends and relatives. (She rooted for the Steelers.)

Manuel says she feels 68 rather than the 86 she will be next year.

For her 85th birthday last month, Flowers organized a surprise party for Manuel, with about 90 former students, friends and relatives.

Officials from the Olympics sent gifts of an Olympic flag, sports clothing and a Tiffany pen. Guests recited poetry and spoke of how Manuel had carried on a torch brought by their forefathers.

Flowers graduated from Blake High and Manuel from rival Middleton, yet the women put that aside to live together.

"She's a Tiger; I'm a Yellow Jacket," Flowers said before playfully warning her cousin: "Don't come in here snarling all up in the beehive."

On good days, Manuel sometimes walks the pier at Ballast Point, although her knees took a beating from years of quick moves on the basketball court and unforgiving wooden hurdles that she nicked.

On a recent day, she eased outdoors, where a neighbor called out "Mama T."

"Yeah, baby," she replied.

Mark Lufric was a student at Hillsborough High when she coached. She didn't talk much, he remembers, but when she did, students listened.

"She walked softly," he said, "but stepped hard."

Reach Elisabeth Parker at or (813) 226-3431.

Black Olympian, coach, teacher marks 85 years of quiet determination 02/10/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 10, 2011 3:30am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Siesta Beach tops rankings of best beaches in America


    Three beaches in Florida made it on a highly coveted list of the top 10 in America this year, ranked by Dr. Stephen Leatherman, a.k.a. "Dr. Beach."

     Dr. Stephen Leatherman, a.k.a. "Dr. Beach," ranked Siesta Beach in Sarasota as the No. 1 beach in America.
[TImes file photo]
  2. Tattooed 'Joker' accused of pointing gun at Miami traffic

    Bizarre News

    MIAMI — Police in Miami-Dade County have managed to arrest the Joker without Batman's help following reports of a green-haired man with tattoos on his face pointing a gun at traffic.

    This photo provided by the Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department shows Lawrence Sullivan, who was arrested in Miami-Dade County, Fla., on Tuesday, May 23, 2017, and charged with carrying a concealed firearm. Police say the self-described "tattoo model" was pointing a gun at moving vehicles. [Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department via AP]
  3. Deputies: Two men, teen intentionally set fire, left it to burn within Weedon Island Preserve


    ST. PETERSBURG –– Two men and a teen face charges after deputies say they deliberately started a fire within Weedon Island Preserve last month.

    Adam Grote, 19, left, and Brandon Kholos, 20, along with a 17-year-old, face charges after deputies say they intentionally started a fire on April 15, 2017, that burned about six acres on Googe Island within Weedon Island Preserve in St. Petersburg. [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
  4. Police chief: Manchester searches turn up valuable info in concert bombing


    MANCHESTER, England — Home searches across Manchester have uncovered important items for the investigation into the concert bombing that left 22 people dead, Manchester's police chief announced Thursday, while other British authorities complained bitterly about information leaks blamed on U.S. officials.

    A police officer at the scene at an address in Nuneaton, England Thursday May 25, 2017 where they arrested a seventh suspect in the investigation into the Manchester Arena bombing. British police have arrested a seventh person in connection with the Manchester Arena bombing. The man was held Wednesday after police carried out searches in the English town of Nuneaton, which is about 161 kilometers (100 miles) south of Manchester. [Joe Giddens | PA via AP]
  5. Joe Henderson: Only unanimous jury vote justifies extreme act of execution


    A ruling last week by the U.S. Supreme Court on Florida's death penalty law didn't generate a lot of chatter, but don't let that fool you.

    A jury recommended execution for Dontae Morris of Tampa by a 10-2 vote in one of his murder trials. The recommendation was unanimous when he was tried in the shooting deaths of two Tampa police officers.