Mabel Fairbanks was denied the chance to become a figure skating champion because of racism. She never made it to the Olympics but she trained and mentored the first skaters of color who did when she became a coach. She was given minor roles when she performed in ice shows so she made sure that Black skaters she coached became members of well-known figure skating clubs and had the opportunities to excel in the sport.
Among the skaters she mentored were the famous Debi Thomas, a two-time U.S. champion who won the 1986 world title and 1988 Olympic bronze medal, and 1992 Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi.
“There would not be an Atoy Wilson or a Tai or Richard Ewell or Debi Thomas or any of those people without her tenacity, her aggressive, diplomatic, way of being determined to open these doors for us because they were not open for her,” Atoy Wilson, the first African American to title in a national competition in 1965, who was also coached by Fairbanks, told Los Angeles Times. “She was a visionary.”
Born in Florida in 1915, Fairbanks’ mother died when she was young and so she moved to New York to live with a brother. Later, she got a job as a babysitter for a well-to-do family. While working there, she started seeing from the living room window kids and others skating on the ice in Central Park. She loved it and desired to join them.
She knew how difficult that could be being Black but she still went ahead to buy a pair of skates for $1 at a pawn shop. From the start, no one wanted to teach her, so she started learning on her own by eavesdropping on white skaters’ lessons, according to Los Angeles Times. But soon her talents were recognized by coaches like Maribel Vinson, a nine-time United States champion.
“Maribel Vinson – whenever she came to New York, she would work with me,” Fairbanks recalled in an interview. “And she said, now, this is our secret. Don’t tell anyone that I’m working with you, giving you lessons. She said, because you’re not going anywhere. They’re not going to allow you in competition.”
Despite knowing that she would never be able to participate in national or international competitions, Fairbanks continued skating. And she had to fight to enter certain ice rinks. “They had a sign at the Pasadena Winter Gardens that read ‘Colored Trade Not Solicited,’ Fairbanks recounted. “But it was a public place, so my uncle had newspaper articles written about it and passed them out everywhere until they finally let me in.”
Known for her “bright costumes and gold-toned skates”, Fairbanks caught the attention of some social clubs in New York and performed on a 6-by-6-foot portable rink that her Uncle Wally made for her. She toured Southern California, Mexico and South America with the Rhythm on Ice show, as pointed out by The New York Times.
Usually, she was not given the chance to do her best jumps and spins because “none of the white skaters wanted to be outshone by someone black,” she told The Times in an interview.
Fairbanks moved to Southern California in the 1940s where she became a coach to scores of Black talents in skating. It was Fairbanks who paired up Tai Babilonia with Randy Gardner, the future five-time national pairs champions in the 1970s besides working with other future champions.
Truly, Fairbanks, who was of Black and Seminole heritage, overcame barriers to become a well-known skater in New York and on the touring circuit. She never got to compete but became a top coach and opened the door for other young Blacks to compete in skating. She also became the first African-American woman in the United States Figure Skating Hall of Fame.
”I get great satisfaction because at the time I started, we didn’t have Black skaters,” she told The New York Times in 2001. ”I was not allowed on the rink, but I fought until I got in.”
Fairbanks died in 2001 at age 85. The Los Angeles Times writes that “her resting place at Hollywood Forever Cemetery is marked by a plaque etched with a pair of figure skates and the words Skatingly Yours,’ the phrase she’d add when she signed autographs.”