"I've Cried Enough For All Of Us": The Mabel Fairbanks Story

"Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in the world, but it has not solved one yet." - Maya Angelou

When I started compiling materials to write about the subject of today's blog, I listened to a podcast from Sister Thunder Radio and was moved profoundly. The host passionately said, "Can you IMAGINE loving something so much, going to buy your own skates, teaching yourself, and then can't be allowed because of your skin colour?" Many articles tend to gloss over the sheer magnitude of what Mabel Fairbanks did for skating but this podcast host spoke with wonder. That's the kind of wonder I experience as I write this, for Fairbanks' story is just truly awe inspiring.

Mabel was born on November 14, 1915 in the Florida Everglades and would later be nicknamed 'Swanee Snowbanks' by a manager because of where she was born. She didn't know her father and her mother died at the age of eight. Orphaned, she stayed with a teacher who treated her "like a maid". She was sent to New York City to live with her older brother, but shortly after arriving his wife kicked her out. Homeless. she slept on stoops in Central Park until a affluent young mother found her and offered her a job babysitting. She watched other people her age skating on a small pond that wasn't far from Central Park's Harlem end and was so taken by the sport that she became determined to take it up herself. Using the money she earned babysitting, Mabel bought a pair of used skates at a pawn shop that were two sizes two big and stuffed them with cotton so they'd fit, and headed out skating on the pond. She struggled with the sub par ice conditions and an onlooker suggested that she'd fare better at an actual rink. To say Fairbanks, who was of African American and Seminole heritage, wasn't exactly accepted with open arms was the understatement of the century. She was told that "blacks didn't skate there" and didn't get to skate that day. Now living with an uncle, he constructed a 6 X 6 foot rink in her bedroom made of wood, tin, dry ice and water for her to practice on at home. Practice she most certainly did. 

Eventually she found herself at the Gay Blades Ice Casino on Broadway and 52nd Street. Ronald A. Scheurer's 1997 article "Breaking the Ice: The Mabel Fairbanks Story" offers a great description of what happened next: "A persistent cashier kept telling her that coloured people weren't allowed in, and a just-as-persistent Fairbanks kept returning to the rink. One day the sympathetic manager, who was standing nearby, told the cashier to let the kid in. Well, Fairbanks wasn't exactly a kid by this time, but she was small, and packed inside of her warm clothes, she could pass as one. Over the pedestal and onto the ice, she ignored the stares and ridicule of others, skated her own way, and soon caught the attention of the all-white staff. Maribel Vinson (nine times U.S. Ladies Champion) recognized Fairbanks' talent and started offering her advice on technique. Howard Nicholson, another well-known coach of the era, joined Vinson in contributing to Fairbanks' development. Fairbanks also benefited from watching and listening while the white children received formal instruction. She copied and practiced their moves."

I want to get a few things across here. This wasn't the bible belt; this wasn't Alabama, Tennessee or Arkansas. This was New York City and the racism wasn't watered down any less in the least. Maribel wasn't permitted to teach Mabel on the regular sessions, so she stayed behind and coached Mabel for free because she saw something in her. She believed this young girl deserved the right to skate. Maribel did this at her own risk. When you have rinks blatantly posting signs that say "no Negroes allowed", not only was Mabel at risk of being booted out of there at any minute, Maribel was in real danger of losing her job and/or students for helping Mabel... and that's a big part of this story that's not given much contemplation. Also, Mabel just wasn't a good skater, she was a DAMN good skater. In 1943, Time Magazine wrote that "experts rate her superior to most amateur whites". Yet, Mabel couldn't test or compete. Want someone to point your finger at? Look no further than the two men who held the presidency of U.S. Figure Skating from 1930 to 1937 in alternating terms: eight time U.S. Champion Sherwin Badger and former pairs skater Charles C. Rotch. They called the shots at the time. They could have changed things if they wanted, but they didn't. This isn't really about finger pointing though, because right down to the cashier who wouldn't let Mabel in to skate to the parents and fellow skaters who viewed her with derision, racism was and is a societal problem... not just an issue of a couple jackasses being jackasses. At any rate, the ever determined Mabel didn't give up hope of being able to compete with her peers and even tried to do something about it. She is quoted in the 1998 LA Times article "The Ice Mother Blazed The Skating Trail For Others" as saying "I wanted to train for the Olympics. So I went to black doctors, lawyers, teachers, anyone I could think of who might help fund lessons and everything I'd need. They all said, 'Go away little girl.' " She tried to compete in the Olympic Trials and was again told to take a hike. By now most people would have hung up their skates and said "fuck this shit" but Mabel wasn't having it one bit.

She turned to professional skating and repeatedly got the same old story she'd be hearing for years. Quoted in Darryl Lyman's book "Great African American Women", Mabel said "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." Did she give up? What do YOU think? A 1998 LA Times article explains "She earned money by being the only black skater in some of the many small ice shows performed in nightclubs during that era. She was never a part of the cast, she recalls, but was always billed as the 'extra added attraction.' And she was not permitted to perform the dazzling, world-class manoeuvres of which she was capable, she says, because 'none of the white skaters wanted to be outshone by someone black.'" Taking to the road, Fairbanks performed in Havana, Cuba with Rhapsody On Ice, which starred none other than British skater/actress/dancer Belita.

World Champion Randy Gardner explained to me that "Mabel's professional skating career was during the time where there was segregation in this country and abroad. I remember her telling me that when she would do shows, during the breaks or at dinner time, she would have to sit outside away from the other cast members to eat her meal. But, Bob Turk (who later became producer and director of the Ice Capades) would go out and sit with her during those times so she wouldn't have to be alone. Even going through those experiences, she had so much spirit and drive, I guess she had to create a survival technique in order to succeed in a prejudiced world. And she did!" The discrimination in her career as a professional skater didn't stop though. She contacted three time Olympic Gold Medallist Sonja Henie, who she'd idolized after watching her film "One In A Million" as a younger skater, about performing in one of her shows and Sonja declined too. Fairbanks turned to coaching.

She moved to Los Angeles in 1940 and continued to break down barriers. Ignoring the signs of "coloured trade not solicited" displayed in California rinks, she embarked on a lucrative coaching career in California at The Polar Palace and Iceland. She taught a who's who of Hollywood how to skate - Natalie Cole, Eartha Kitt and her daughter Kit, Dean Martin's whole family, Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby's granddaughter among them. She also coached an impressive roster of elite competitive skaters and mentored skaters like Debi Thomas, Kristi Yamaguchi, Rudy Galindo and Scott Hamilton. Just incredible skaters. If someone was too poor to pay for lessons, she taught them for free, she let them stay with her at her Laurel Canyon home... that's what kind of woman Mabel was. She continued to fight for the rights of skaters of colours her whole life, petitioning the Culver City Skating Club to admit Richard Ewell III to its membership in 1965, making him one of the first African American skaters to gain admission to a U.S. figure skating club. The next year, she coached Atoy Wilson to become America's first U.S. champion of colour when he won the novice title at the 1966 U.S. Championships. She also coached Ewell and Michelle McCladdie, who become America's first African American pair team to win a U.S. junior title in 1972. When Rory Flack wanted to quit skating at the age of thirteen because of the racism she was experiencing, Fairbanks urged her to soldier on. Tai Babilonia, who we'll get to in a minute, said it well in her 2009 interview with Allison Manley on The Manleywoman SkateCast: "She had not just black skaters, but Latino skaters, Asian skaters, rich, poor, the Hollywood elite, they all gravitated toward Mabel. Mabel kicked down that big rainbow door."

Mabel and her student Gjert Gjertson standing in the ruins of The Polar Palace, destroyed by fire in 1962

Back to Tai, Mabel was the person that was credited with first pairing World Champions Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner. In a recent interview, Tai shared the impression that Mabel made on her career with me: "Mabel was not of this planet. She was unique, eclectic, one of a kind, motivating. I could go on and on. In the late sixties, in her locker in the back room at the rink in Culver City, she had at least four pairs of skates in different colours. I think they were Harlick's made especially for her? I never asked. A pair were pink and that's why I wear the pink skates - to honor her. She had flaming red hair, her wardrobe was different and eclectic. It looked part couture, part old pieces she had... just a mix and match of everything. It's so hard to explain her but she really liked to stand out and she knew how. She lived in Hollywood and the house is still there. For a lot of her students it was like our second home. We'd stay there after skating Friday nights and have sleepovers and she'd drive us to the rink the next day. I have magical memories of that home. She lived a block and a half north of Sunset Boulevard. It was just so normal for us. On ice, she was very much a disciplinarian but just so motivating!" Randy told me "I started group classes with Mabel when I was seven years old. She exuberant, colourful and fancy. I had never really met anyone quite like that before. Her personality made her classes and private lessons so much fun. I couldn't wait to get to the rink to take her class. Mabel was the one that paired up Tai and me for the local skating club show. She took a chance, I guess, but she really encouraged us to skate pairs, but neither of us really wanted to do it. After all, I was ten years old and Tai was eight. Later in life, when she had retired and health issues arose, she never forgot to call me during all the holidays, especially Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. Those calls made me feel like I was special, just like she always had when I was young boy beginning to skate."

Tai echoed the incredible impression that Mabel made on her life both on and OFF the ice: "She changed my life, my family's life, she changed Randy's life. Who knew it would start with something as simple as 'hold his hand and skate around the rink together'... To say that we are still holding hands so many years later, that's so powerful to me. I am so grateful for the lessons from her that I learned that I still use in my skating life and everyday life and as a mother, person and a woman. She never backed down and that's what I loved about her. You don't back down. You learn from that. She fought for herself but more than that she fought for us. She was a remarkable woman."

Fairbanks never married but devoted her entire life to skating. Her students became almost like surrogate children to her and she coached until she was seventy nine years old! At the 1997 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Nashville, she was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall Of Fame, a moment that meant just so much to her and the students lives that she touched. On the induction, Tai explained "That was HER moment! I was there and Atoy was there. I've never seen her happier than that night.  Mabel getting that induction and to be there for her and walk her out on the ice, that is up there in the top three moments of our career, because without that, we wouldn't even be talking."

Sadly, Mabel was diagnosed with the neuromuscular disease Myasthenia gravis in 1997 and in mid-2001 with leukemia. She passed away in Burbank, California on September 29, 2001, the same month as the 9/11 attacks in the city she grew up as a young skater. Tai kept in touch with Mabel until the day she passed. She told me that she received a call from Atoy Wilson letting her know that Mabel had just passed away and rushed to the hospital right away to sit with her. "I felt she was still there and to be able to sit and have that final conversation... that was a very special moment."

In an interview three years before her death, Mabel said, "if I had gone to the Olympics and become a star, I would not be who I am today." If Mabel hadn't done everything she DID, FIGURE SKATING wouldn't be what it is today. 

I want to close this blog with a quote that was shared in the podcast about Mabel's life that I mentioned earlier. It comes from Jackie Robinson, the first person of colour to play Major League Baseball. He said "a life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives." As I researched 
Mabel's story and talked to Tai and Randy, I have to admit that I teared up more than once. Then I found a quote in the 1998 L.A. Times article from Mabel which I could almost hear echoing through time like a voice in my head from someone I'd never met: "Don't cry dear... I've cried enough for all of us." Thank you, Mabel Fairbanks, for having an impact on my life... and for never backing down.

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