Tiny dynamo blazed a trail

Bessie McKinney was named an honorary captain of the football team because of her longtime commitment to Grambling athletics. GSU and NFL great Doug Williams presents her with a signed football. Courtesy photo

McKinney (left), who attended Tuskegee Institute on a track scholarship, stands with the track team circa 1948. Courtesy photo

McKinney with Coach Eddie G. Robinson and his wife, Doris, in 1965. Courtesy photo

Bessie Hayes McKinney stood less than 5 ft. 2 inches tall. But she had a giant commitment to helping young African Americans reach their full potential through education and a track record of breaking through glass ceilings and racial barriers.
McKinney became the first full-time female instructor in the Health and Physical Education Department at Grambling State University when she was hired during the 1956-57 academic year and later the first woman to head the department.
McKinney died Dec. 17 in Phoenix, Ariz. Funeral services were held Dec. 29 in Chicago, where she was buried.
She was born December 15, 1926 in Prospect, Tenn. to Benny Hayes and Sally Ruth Bassham.  During her early years, she was reared and educated in Decatur, Ala. while living with her mother and beloved aunts, Idelia & Lura Mae Bassham.  
In her 28-year career at GSU, she positively impacted the lives of hundreds of students with her no-nonsense style and dedication to excellence.
McKinney graduated from Alabama A&M High School in Huntsville, Ala., and her athleticism earned her a track scholarship to attend Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University. She and other members of the nationally recognized Tuskegee track team were invited to attend the 1948 Olympics in London, but her mother’s illness prevented her from competing. McKinney earned a bachelor of science degree in 1949 at Tuskegee, and while there, was initiated as a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.
After graduating, she began her professional career as a physical education instructor at Alabama A&M University. There she met and married William McKinney with whom she had one son, Stanley Ian McKinney.  
She earned a master’s degree in physical education in 1956 from the University of Michigan making her among the first African American women to do so. She furthered her education at Springfield College in Massachusetts earning an advanced certification in physical education.
McKinney was inducted by her alma mater into the Tuskegee Hall of Fame in 1981. The honor pays tribute to former athletes and supporters of athletics for their exceptional athletic performance at Tuskegee.
Among her favorite past times was attending the theatre in New York and watching and attending Grambling and other collegiate and professional sporting events. She was named honorary captain of the Grambling Tigers football team in September 1998 for her support.
McKinney retired from GSU in 1984. She continued to be involved at the university, her sorority and church, St. Benedict Catholic Church in Grambling, where she was a member until she moved to Arizona to be with family in 2006.