Mabel Fairbanks was a talented skater, but racial segregation denied her the opportunity to explore this passion. Nonetheless, she played her part as a skater and coach and paved the way for other African-American skaters. Her determination to keep going, even in the face of exclusion, was exemplary. She was recognized by a Hall of Fame induction. Learn more about her here.
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Mabel Fairbanks’ Early Life
Fairbanks had a difficult childhood. She lost her mother at the age of eight and moved in with a teacher whom she revealed treated her like a housemaid. Due to that, she went to New York to stay with her brother.
She worked for him and his wife at a market but was dismissed after she sold excess goods to a customer. She then landed a babysitting job after a wealthy woman spotted her on a park bench.
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The skater first saw people skating in Central Park while living with her employer. She was intrigued and bought herself a pair of skates. Fairbanks didn’t have anyone to help her learn and thus eavesdropped on lessons given to white skaters.
She practised her skills at the rink and was the only black skater, not because black people were banned from using it, but because they just didn’t. Coach Maribel Vinson Owen noticed her talent and helped refine her skills.
Mabel Fairbanks wasn’t allowed to compete in national and international competitions because of her race, so she was limited to nightclubs and stage shows. She performed in New York, after which she moved to Los Angeles. There, she joined Ice Capades and Ice Follies and was able to travel internationally.
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Mabel Fairbanks achieved some level of success, considering the era she lived. Afterwards, she began training other black skaters:
- Leslie Robinson
- Tiffany Chin
- Billy Chapel
- Scott Hamilton
- Kristi Yamaguchi / Rudy Galindo
- Tai Babilonia / Randy Gardner
One of her students, Atoy Wilson and Tai Babilonia, is working to get Mable Fairbanks recognized. By the time she gave the Los Angeles Times this interview, she was working on a serialized television biography. Both hope her work will be housed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“She fought for us and broke down the barriers so we’re now fighting for her,” said Bailonia.
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Mabel Fairbank’s Impact
Some of the skaters Fairbanks helped achieved more than she did in getting into local clubs and competing in international competitions.
For example, Wilson joined the L. A Figure Skating Club. Another student of hers, Richard Ewell, joined the All-Year Figure Skating Club. He was also the first black skater to win the 1970 Junior Men’s Championship.
Babilonia’s figure skating career also benefited from Fairbanks. She paired her with Randy Gardener, with whom he won five American titles. Babi admits that when she was paired with Randy, she didn’t know what pair skating was. Also, she never understood the reason behind the pairing with Randy but went along. Babi is thankful that it all worked out but credits Fairbank’s judgement.
Mabel Fairbank was inducted into the US Skating Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Hall of Fame. Her legacy continues and those who knew her are making sure that the generations to come will hear and know her name.
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