Remembering Mabel Fairbanks, the Black Figure Skating Pioneer Who Never Got to Compete
By Kat Long
Not much in Mabel Fairbanks’s early life set her up to become a professional figure skater. The 11th of 14 siblings, she was born in the Florida Everglades in 1915 (some sources say 1923) to parents of Black, Seminole, and English heritage. With so many Fairbanks kids battling for the adults’ attention and among each other, Mabel developed a deep sense that she wasn’t wanted. “I tried to get away from everybody, whether they were family or church member,” she told an interviewer for an oral history recorded in 1999. “Nobody seemed to have liked me.”
Fairbanks eventually moved north like so many other Black southerners as part of the Great Migration and lived with one of her brothers in Harlem. She worked at her brother's fish market and performed other odd jobs to contribute to the family’s rent. Eventually, an affluent white family hired the young girl as a babysitter for their daughter. Their apartment overlooked Central Park’s lake, which was frozen every winter to allow ice skating. Fairbanks gazed down at the bundled-up skaters trying to imitate the spins and waltz jumps made famous by Sonja Henie, the Norwegian ice queen and three-time Olympic gold medalist, and decided to give it a try.
“Harlem’s Wonder Girl of the Ice”
Fairbanks bought her first pair of ice skates at a pawn shop for a dollar and taught herself to glide on the small frozen pond in New York City’s Morningside Park, not far from where she lived in Harlem. She soon ginned up the courage to step onto the frozen Central Park lake. “I discovered that I could skate around too, just like the other kids. I had so much fun and I said, ‘Now, that's for me, that's what I want to do.’ And so I went over there every day as long as there was ice,” Fairbanks said in 1999.
A local event promoter named Wallace Hunter—whom she called Uncle Wally—noticed Fairbanks’s talent and drive. He encouraged her to practice at Gay Blades, an ice rink at Broadway and 52nd Street, where she was initially denied entry by an employee because of her race until the manager agreed to let her in. Once inside, she began wowing the other skaters with her speed and self-taught tricks. When the rink’s coaches worked with white skaters, Fairbanks eavesdropped on their instruction and practiced jumps and spins.
Though the talent was there, Fairbanks was up against a sport that actively discriminated against non-white skaters. Rinks didn’t allow Black skaters to practice, and white coaches wouldn’t work with Black athletes. Even popular ice skating touring shows like Ice Follies, Holiday on Ice, and Ice Capades wouldn’t hire Black talent. And the competitive side of the sport was structured to prevent all but white athletes to take part.
Young skaters who wanted to compete for regional and national championships, and go on to the international competitions and the Olympics, had to join a regional skating club affiliated with U.S. Figure Skating, the governing body of the sport. The club administered qualifying skills tests, and skaters had to pass them to move ahead in the competitive hierarchy. Athletes who mastered each qualifying test level could go on to compete for national and international titles. However, in the 1930s and '40s, the clubs didn’t admit Black skaters, closing off that opportunity altogether. “The clubs wouldn’t let me in,” Fairbanks remembered. “They just laughed in my face.”
Instead, she joined ice shows that performed for Black audiences as the first step to a professional skating career. She talked her way into New York City’s rinks to practice after hours, and even set up a 6-foot-by-6-foot sheet of ice in her apartment so she could work on refining her spins and “school figures” (a set of circular patterns that, until 1990, were part of figure skating competitions). Maribel Vinson, a nine-time U.S. skating champ and coach, noticed Fairbanks at the rinks and offered pointers on her technique.
By the early 1940s, Fairbanks was performing in Uncle Wally’s ice revues in New York City for Black and interracial crowds. She also starred in shows at the Renaissance Ballroom, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the famous Apollo Theater, where she launched “some of the most difficult ice skating routines, several of which she herself created: the Flying Waltz Jump, the Camel Parade, and the Elevator spin,” The New York Age, a prominent Black newspaper, reported. The press praised her as Harlem’s own “eyeful on ice” and “a sepia Sonja Henie.”
Newsreel camera crews showed up to capture Fairbanks's moves on film, which introduced her to white movie-goers. But by 1945, Fairbanks found her career thwarted again by discrimination. Larger theaters and white producers declined to work with her, despite her obvious talent and appeal. “Jim Crow has reached out and blocked the efforts of one of the greatest ice skaters in America,” the influential Black newspaper The California Eagle wrote. “[She] still is victim of as complete a freeze-out as colored ball players were until Jackie Robinson recently cracked into organized baseball.”
Frosty Frolics in La La Land
In 1946, Fairbanks and Uncle Wally, her longtime manager, decided it was time for a change, and the duo packed up and moved to Los Angeles—perhaps an odd place for a cold-weather sport, but the perfect destination to build her entertainment brand.
While out west, Fairbanks hustled to get noticed by ice show producers and television executives, dance studios and celebrities. She convinced the Hollywood on Ice, Rhythm on Ice, and Ice Follies revues to hire her as a featured performer and toured nightclubs in the Caribbean and Mexico with “the tank,” a huge, portable ice rink set up for each show. In the mid-1950s, she guest-starred on Frosty Frolics, one of the earliest televised ice shows, on Paramount Studios’s station KTLA (it ended up becoming one of L.A.’s most popular TV programs over its four-year run). In between tours, she taught figure skating to the children of stars like Dean Martin, Nat “King” Cole, and Bing Crosby at the Polar Palace in Hollywood. She autographed photos with her signature phrase, “skatingly yours.”
Fairbanks also taught skaters of color, focusing on school figure techniques and ice show moves because Black participants still weren’t permitted to join skating clubs and compete. It was a struggle just to convince the Polar Palace to allow her to teach them on its ice, Fairbanks remembered. “I wouldn’t let anyone turn me around because God had chosen me to put Black skating on the map. The only way you can do it is to teach some Black kids to skate,” she said in 1999. “But you know, Maribel Vinson told me the same thing. She said, ‘Mabel, there are never going to be Black kids in competitions or even ice shows unless you do something about it.’”
Coaching Future Champions
According to Fairbanks, she found a loophole in the U.S. Figure Skating rule book in the early '60s. The organization allowed “individual” members—those who didn’t belong to a specific club, but registered directly with the governing body—to be tested and compete in sanctioned events, like the U.S. national championships. This allowed skaters to bypass a club's rules about a participant's race, so Fairbanks told her Black students to fill out forms for individual membership without mentioning any other personal details. They were accepted. And when Fairbanks took them to be tested, and the judges argued that the organization didn’t allow testing for skaters of color, she showed them their own rule book declaring them eligible.
Her first star was Atoy Wilson, whose deep edges and graceful lines, as well as his precise school figures, made him stand out from the other young skaters. Fairbanks secured his individual membership and then, when he was 13 or 14 and had moved up in the ranks, full membership in the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club. “It was not until much later, when I was older, did I realize the importance of this barrier being broken,” Wilson told International Figure Skating magazine in 2008.
With the club’s backing, Fairbanks shepherded Wilson through the grueling process of training, competing, and coping with condescension from white judges and coaches. In 1966, Wilson won the first national championship, at the novice level, by a Black skater (despite falling on his flying sit spin).
Wilson’s success seemed to open doors, at least a crack, for more skaters of color. In 1970, Fairbanks’s student Richard Ewell III became the first Black skater to win a U.S. junior men’s championship (one level higher than novice) with his impressive triple toe loops and salchows. “The crowd was really turned on by Richard Ewell's superb jumps in his junior men's performance,” Skating magazine gushed. Behind the scenes, Fairbanks teamed Ewell with another promising Black skater, Michelle McCladdie; they won the U.S. junior pairs championship in 1972. They then joined Ice Capades [PDF].
Leaving a Legacy
Fairbanks's most successful students were pairs champs Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner. She put them together as tweens (convincing them to hold hands on the ice was a battle, Fairbanks said in 1999) and coached them through the ranks of competition. They eventually won five consecutive U.S. senior championships and the 1979 world championship [PDF], and were expected to crush the Russian pairs team for Olympic gold in 1980 before having to withdraw due to injury.
In the 1980s, Fairbanks continued to mentor skaters of color. She helped coach Kristi Yamaguchi and Rudy Galindo to a junior pairs championship before each of them won singles championships; she also worked with 1985 U.S. singles champ Tiffany Chin, 1984 Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton, and 1988 Olympic bronze medalist Debi Thomas, the first Black athlete to win a medal at an Olympic winter games.
Fairbanks coached new skaters as well as international stars until she retired due to a chronic illness. She was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame (its first Black honoree) in 1997 and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in October 2001, just weeks after she passed away from cancer.
In 2020, U.S. Figure Skating took a needed step toward supporting the development of BIPOC skaters—as Fairbanks had for more than five decades—by establishing the Mabel Fairbanks Skatingly Yours Fund. Awards of up to $25,000 are given to rising skaters of color to help pay for training and competitions. Its first honoree is Starr Andrews, an up-and-coming athlete who is mentored by Tai Babilonia. “I feel like [Fairbanks] opened so many doors for other African American figure skaters, like Tai and me,” Andrews said last year. “And it's just made a big difference in the sport."