Willye B. White, who picked cotton as a child and whose father disowned her, went on to compete in five Olympics and get inducted into eleven halls of fame. In 1991, White started a philanthropic foundation -- the Willye White Foundation -- that sought to assist and encourage children in Chicago. She contributed many programs to the Chicago Park District during her time as the Director of Recreation Services. The Chicago Park District renamed the park in her honor to commemorate her athletic and philanthropic contributions in 2008.
Willye B. White was born on New Year's Eve, 1939, in Money, Mississippi. Her father disowned her, claiming she couldn't be his child because of her red hair, green eyes and light brown (he changed his mind shortly before his death, however). Thus, White's Grandparents raised her. At the young age of ten years old, she took a job picking cotton; she picked cotton for twelve hours, and earned $2.50, per day.
However, despite working in the fields, it was at ten years old that White also discovered she possessed a talent for running and jumping. A mere six years later, while in high school, she competed in the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games and became the first American woman to ever medal in the long jump, earning a silver medal. White went on to compete in the next four Olympiads, which made her the first American to participate on five Olympic track and field teams. She also medaled in three straight Pan Am Games. All told her track career afforded her an opportunity to compete in more than 150 nations as a member of thirty-nine different international track and field teams where she won numerous championships, won many medals and set records.
White moved to Chicago in 1960 and began working as a nurse in 1963. Much like her athletic career, she quickly succeeded so that by 1965, The Chicago Health Department hired her as a public health administrator. She later graduated with a B.A. degree in public health administration from Chicago State University in 1976, and she did all that while continuing to enjoy immense success as an international track star.
During the 1970s and into the early 1990s, she served on the on the U.S. Olympic Committee and coached athletes. As well, in 1990, White founded a sports and fitness consultancy called WBW Hang on Productions. And, never one to settle on athletics as her only activity, she also founded the Willye White Foundation in 1991, a foundation that assisted children with attaining proper health care as well as counseling children with low self-esteem.
White is a member of eleven sports halls of fame, including the National Association of Sport and Physical Education, Black Sports, Women Sports Foundation, and National Track and Field. Sports Illustrated ranked White in 1999 as one of the 100 greatest athletes of the century and Ebony, in 2002, named her as one of the ten greatest black female athletes of all time. In addition to White's enormous collection of athletic medals and honors, she was also the first American to win the world’s highest sportsmanship award, the UNESCO Pierre de Coubetin International Fair Play Trophy.
White passed away from pancreatic cancer on Tuesday, February 6, 2007. The Chicago Park District re-named the park in her honor one year after her passing.