Abbott was the son of Elbert and Mollie Brown Abbott who moved to South Dakota from Alabama in 1890. He graduated from Watertown High School, Watertown, South Dakota, in 1912 and then from the South Dakota State University at Brookings in 1916. Abbott earned 14 varsity athletic awards during his collegiate career.
In 1916 Cleveland Abbott married Jessie Harriet Scott (1897–1982). They had one daughter, Jessie Ellen, who in 1943 became the first coach of the women’s track team at Tennessee State University in Nashville.
Abbott served as a First Lieutenant in the 366th Infantry, 92nd Division in World War I. He saw action at the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in 1918. Abbott was later a commissioned officer in the Army Reserve. (The US Army Reserve Center at Tuskegee is now named the Cleveland Leigh Abbott Center.)
In 1923 Cleveland Abbott was hired as an agricultural chemist and athletic director at Tuskegee Institute, a job that had been personally offered to him by Booker T. Washington in 1913 on the condition that he successfully earn his B.A. degree. As athletic director Abbott was expected to coach the Institute's football team. During Abbott’s 32-year career, the Tuskegee team had a 202–95–27 record including six undefeated seasons.
Abbott also started the women’s track and field program at Tuskegee in 1937. The team was undefeated from 1937 to 1942. Six of his athletes competed on U.S. Olympic track teams, including gold medalists Alice Coachman and Mildred McDaniel. He also coached tennis stars Margaret “Pete” Peters and Roumania “Repeat” Peters during their college years at Tuskegee.
Abbott was inducted into the South Dakota State University Hall of Fame in 1968, the Tuskegee University Hall of Fame in 1975, the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Hall of Fame in 1992, the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1995, and the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1996. Also in 1996, in recognition of his outstanding contributions to athletics, the Tuskegee University Football Stadium was renamed the Cleveland Leigh Abbott Memorial Alumni Stadium.
Cleveland Leigh Abbott died at the Veterans Hospital in Tuskegee on April 14, 1955 and was buried in the Tuskegee University Campus Cemetery at Tuskegee, Alabama.
“Obituary,” The Huronite (Huron, South Dakota, June 5, 1955, p. 1); A. Dunkle and V. Smith, The College on the Hills: A Sense of South Dakota State University History (Brookings, SD: SDSU Alumni Association, 2003); Ruth Hill, Black Women Oral History Project (Westport, CT: Meckler, 1990); Charles Johnson, African Americans and ROTC (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2002); Monroe Mason and Arthur Furr, The American Negro Soldier with the Red Hand of France (Boston: Cornhill Co., 1920).
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