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On this date, we mark the birth of Mabel Fairbanks, a Black figure skater, in 1916.
She was born in New York City. As a young girl in the 1930s, Fairbanks discovered her lifetime passion watching a Sonia Henie movie. She then saw a pair of black skates in a pawnshop window and talked the guy down to $1.50. They were two sizes too big, but that didn't stop Fairbanks. She stuffed them with cotton, found her balance on blades by going up and down the stairs in her building, and took them to the nearby frozen lake. It wasn't long before Fairbanks was sailing across the ice. When a passerby suggested she try out the rink in Central Park, she was soon skating and attaining solid 6.0 judging, but the pro clubs wouldn't have her because she was Black.
"I remember they said to me, 'we don't have Negroes in ice shows.' "But I didn't let that get in my way, because I loved to skate."
Fairbanks continued to refine her skill and returned to the rink again and again. Then one day, the manager noted her persistence and the shiny pair of new skates her uncle bought her from Macy's basement, and he let her inside. From then on, Fairbanks' ability and sparkle shattered the race barrier at that pivotal rink, and professional skaters started giving her free lessons. In the 1940s, Fairbanks came to Los Angeles and performed in nightclubs like Cyro's.
When Fairbanks was invited to skate on the road with the Rhapsody On Ice show, she jumped at the chance, even though they said they needed her as "someone to skate in the dark countries." She wowed international audiences, returning to Los Angeles only to find it still blind to her talent but not to her color. "They had a sign at the Pasadena Winter Gardens that read "Colored Trade Not Solicited," she remembers. "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."
She landed a role on KTLA television's Frosty Follies show and continued to perform at local showrooms, yet Fairbanks still wasn't allowed to join professional skating clubs. She got herself and other Blacks in by sending for individual memberships from the United States Professional Skating Association (USPSA), without letting them know they were Black.
Fairbanks opened the door for other young Blacks to compete in skating, but her pro years had passed, so she became a teacher and coach in Culver City and the Hollywood Polar Palace. Famed Olympic medalist Scott Hamilton learned from Fairbanks when he was just a young beginner, and she gave free lessons to those too poor to pay.
While at the Polar Palace, her students included many celebrities and their children, like Natalie Cole, Ricky Nelson, Danny Kaye, and Jimmy Durante. Many of her Black skating students went on to be Olympic gold medalists because she skated over, around, and through walls of racism. Fairbanks' ability to do and teach has helped cultivate some of the finest skaters of the century. "If I had been allowed to go into the Olympics or Ice Capades like I wanted to then, I may not have helped other Blacks like I did, and coached such wonderful skaters, and I think all that has been just as important and meaningful."
You could find Fairbanks rink side, coaching pro skaters at Iceland in Van Nuys. While the "official" skating world denied Fairbanks’ contributions, world-renowned skaters sought her out as a coach. Her students included the United States and World Champions Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, Kristi Yamaguchi, Rudy Galindo, and Tiffany Chin. In 1998, Fairbanks was honored with the Silver Achievement Award, Sports Category, at the YWCA's Leader Luncheon at the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles.
She taught and coached on the ice until she was 79 years old and was diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis, a disease that weakens the muscles. Mabel Fairbanks died at 85 in September 2001 in Los Angeles.
Great African American Women
By Darryl Lyman
Jonathan David Publisher, Inc. Middle Village, NY