Alice Maud Eugenia “Jean” Lowe Butler, track and field athlete, educator (born 1922 in Toronto, ON; died 11 September 2017 in Mobile, Alabama). Jean Lowe Butler was one of Canada’s most accomplished amateur athletes. She set Ontario records in the women’s 100-yard and 220-yard dash and held the Canadian record in the women’s 100 m sprint (11.9 seconds). An elite college athlete in the United States, she competed in the 100 m, 200 m, long jump and high jump, and won medals in each event at every meet. Her exclusion from the 1948 Canadian Olympic team was controversial. A teacher for 30 years, she was inducted into the Tuskegee University Athletic Hall of Fame in 1985.
The daughter of Caribbean immigrants, Jean Lowe was born sometime in 1922. She began her competitive running career at age 13 with the Toronto Ladies’ Athletic Club and later with the Laurel Ladies’ Athletic Club. She also played basketball for the Toronto Ladies Club and for Hope United Church, and softball in the Beaches Ladies’ Softball League. At Eastern High School of Commerce (later named Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute, now Kapapamahchakwew - Wandering Spirit School), she won high school championships in track and field. She also played on championship teams in volleyball, basketball, softball and badminton. She served as curator (captain) for track, basketball, volleyball, softball and tennis teams, as an executive member of the Girls’ Athletic Society, and as a member of the dance team.
Already a standout sprinter at Eastern Commerce when she joined Toronto’s Laurel Ladies’ Athletic Club, Lowe set the 220-yard record at the 1941 Ontario indoor athletics championships. She added the women’s indoor 100-yard record the following year. At the 1942 Ontario track and field championships, she won five events. She then went on to captain a Laurel 440-yard relay team that dominated American Amateur Union (AAU) meets, winning the 1943, 1944 and 1945 AAU championships. At the 1943 championships in Ohio, Lowe’s 100 m time of 11.9 seconds broke the Canadian record, set by Myrtle Cook-McGowan in 1928.
Lowe won the Norman Craig Memorial Trophy for Ontario’s outstanding girl athlete in 1942. In 1944, she anchored the champion relay team at the AAU championships in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Quiet Exit from Canada
In 1942, Lowe met Cleve L. Abbott, athletic director at the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), a historically Black university in Tuskegee, Alabama, founded by Booker T. Washington. (Abbott is considered a landmark figure in amateur sports in Alabama. In 1936, he created the Tuskegee Relays, an important competition for Black high school girls in Southern states. Athletes were recruited and offered work/study scholarships to Tuskegee, and in turn helped the school dominate AAU competitions for decades.)
The specific role Cleve Abbott played in Lowe’s decision to leave Canada for Alabama in 1945 is unclear, but when she applied to become a naturalized American citizen, Abbott served as a witness on her behalf. “Her sudden departure from Toronto at the [Second World] War’s close seems to indicate that the best opportunity open to her was outside of the country,” Sportsnet has reported.
Lowe’s personal reasons for leaving seem lost to history. Sportsnet has reported that she returned to Canada to compete in the 1948 Canadian Olympic trials — her first chance to compete for Canada at the Olympics. Many columnists considered her the country’s best chance in the sprinting events. But unfortunately, she failed to reach the podium at the trials.
Afterward, some athletic bodies — the Women’s Amateur Athletic Federation of Canada (WAAF) among them — were accused of showing favourtism to certain athletes in the trials. Lowe’s coaches filed complaints with the WAAF. The accusations were also printed in the Globe and Mail, where columnist Bobbie Rosenfeld pointed out that five BC athletes were selected for seven spots and argued that these athletes had received better treatment. Rosenfeld wondered whether “any whisper of discrimination reached the ears of Jean Lowe, Toronto’s colored trackster.” After this, Lowe never competed for Canada again.
Career with Tuskegee Athletics
Jean Lowe participated in track and field events at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) from 1947 to 1950. She competed on championship indoor and outdoor track teams in the 100 m, 200 m, long jump and high jump. She never missed a podium, winning medals in each event at every meet.
Life after Tuskegee
After graduating from Tuskegee with a Bachelor of Science in 1950, Lowe taught Physical Education, Math and English for one year at Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina. For the next 29 years, she taught in the Mobile, Alabama, school system: 19 years at Central High School, where she assisted in setting up the first Black physical education program; and 10 years at John S. Shaw High School. She was inducted into the Tuskegee University Athletic Hall of Fame in 1985.
During her professional years in the Mobile area, Lowe coached championship teams in track and field and basketball; coached and sponsored majorette and cheerleading squads; and sponsored the Friends of Exceptional Children.
Lowe was a member of the board of directors for the Deep South Girl Scout Council, serving as secretary since 1981. She was also the coordinator of the Patients’ Council for the Southwest Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation; a member of the Mobile-Tuskegee Area Alumni Club; a member of the State Street African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; and a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.
Jean Lowe married Oswald Butler in 1960. She died in Mobile, Alabama, in September 2017 as a member of the State Street AME Zion Church congregation. She donated her body to University of South Alabama’s College of Medicine Anatomical Gifts Program, for research and education.
See also Trailblazing Black Canadian Athletes; Track and Field; Amateur Sports Organization.