Earlene Dennis Brown (1935-1983)

Earlene Brown, 1960
Earlene Brown, 1960

Earlene Dennis Brown, a three-time Olympian, is the first African American woman to win a medal in the shot put. Throughout her life Brown excelled in a variety of sports, gaining her attention, recognition, and honors, including being one of the only two United States women to place at the Olympic Games in Rome, Italy in 1960 and the only shot-putter to compete in three consecutive Olympics. Brown won Olympic bronze for Women’s shot put in 1960; was Amateur Athletic Union Champion in shot put (1956-62, 1964); won Amateur Athletic Union Championship, discus (1958-59, 1961); won gold medal in shot put, silver medal in discus, USA-USSR dual meet (1958); was shot put and discus champion, Pan-American Games (1959); and placed 12th in shot put, Tokyo Olympics (1964).

Earlene Dennis, born July 11, 1935, in Latexo, Texas to Espenola Tillis Dennis, a domestic servant, and Willie Dennis, a semipro baseball player with the Negro League in Texas. An only child, in 1938, at the age of three her parents separated. Dennis remained with her mother and they moved to Los Angeles in 1945. Dennis’s mother married Julius Walker in 1946. Dennis attended Jordan High School in South Central Los Angeles where she excelled in track and field getting noticed by many including Adeline Valdez, Dennis’s high school gym teacher, Josephine Spearman, and Coach Clarence Mackey who tried to get her to compete in the Helsinki Olympics (in 1952 in Helsinki, Finland). Valdez is credited with putting the first discus in Dennis’ hands and her history teacher taught her to shot put. Before taking on the shot put and discus Dennis anchored the relay team.

After graduating from high school in 1952, Dennis attended Compton Junior College and completed a machinist training program. She then joined the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) at 21 after marrying Henry Brown, a brick mason. The couple had a son, Reggie, born November 14, 1955.

Earlene Brown at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics
Earlene Brown at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics

In 1956 Brown finished in the top ten in the shot put and the discus. In 1958 Brown received the #1 world ranking and became the first American to break the 50-foot barrier. Brown won gold medals in the shot put as well as discus events at the Pan American Games in 1959. At the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 Brown set a new American record, receiving the bronze medal in the shot put and placing sixth in the discus.

Brown retired from the shot put competition in 1965. The same year she took up another sport, roller derby skating. Brown’s career in skating began as a blocker for the New York Bombers.

In 1975 Brown retired from all athletic ventures and worked as a beautician to provide for herself and family. On May 1, 1983, Earlene Dennis Brown passed away in Compton, California at the age of 47. On December 1, 2005, Earlene Brown was posthumously inducted in the National Track and Field Hall of Fame by the USA Track and Field (USATF) Association during the Jesse Owens Awards and the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Jacksonville, Florida.