On this day in 2001, Mabel Fairbanks died at the age of 85.
Fairbanks, the first black woman to be inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame, was born on November 14, 1915. At the age of eight, she was orphaned when her mother died. She tried to join her brother in New York City, but his wife wouldn’t allow it. A wealthy woman saw Fairbanks sleeping on a park bench one night and offered her a job as a babysitter at an impressive home overlooking Central Park.
She began figure skating in 1925, buying a used pair of skates and practicing skating at the Central Park rink. Five years later, she was denied access to the rink due to her race. She persisted until the manager gave her access again.
She said, “Blacks didn’t skate there. But it was a public place, so I just carried on.”
Also because of her race, she was not permitted to participate n the national qualifying event for the Olympics. In a 1998 interview, she remarked, “If I had gone to the Olympics and become a star, I would not be who I am today.”
She performed in New York City until the late 1940’s and then relocated to Los Angeles and began to tour internationally. In later years, she taught skating to singles, pairs, and children.
In 1997, she was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis and acute leukemia. She died on September 29, 2001.
The same year, she was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame as well as the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. She is buried in Hollywood Forever cemetery in Hollywood, California.