Jesse “the Buckeye Bullet” Owens was the poster child of the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. He was not alone, however, in defying the Aryan superiority complex that plagued Adolph Hitler and likeminded Whites—17 other African-American athletes combined to win a quarter of the medals won by the U.S. team. Their courageous achievements, however, have been long overlooked—beginning with the White House.
In 1936, when then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt fêted the other Olympic competitors at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., he did not invite the Black athletes.
“Hitler didn’t snub me; it was our president who snubbed me,” said a then-23-year-old Owens, at the time. “The president didn’t even send a telegram.”
Four decades later, a U.S. president finally gave the group their due recognition when 18 of their relatives were invited to a recent event honoring the Rio Games’ Team USA.
President Obama lauded Owens—who became the first American to win four gold medals in an Olympiad, beating out his competitors in the 100-meter sprint, the long jump, the 200-meter sprint, and the 4 x 100 sprint relay and died in 1980—but he also praised the other 17 African-American athletes who had been relegated to near-obscurity.
“It wasn’t just Jesse. It was other African American athletes in the middle of Nazi Germany under the gaze of Adolph Hitler that put a lie to notions of racial superiority – whooped them – and taught them a thing or two about democracy and taught them a thing or two about the American character,” the president said. “So we’re honored to have many of their families here today.”
The other athletes were: John Woodruff, Ralph Metcalfe, Dave Albritton, Jack Wilson, John Brooks, Tidye Pickett, Louise Stokes, James LuValle, Fritz Pollard Jr., Mack Robinson, Archie Williams, Cornelius Johnson, James Clark, Howell King, Art Oliver, Willis Johnson and John Terry. Together, they amassed 14 of Team USA’s 56 medals during the 1936 Games.
Randilyn Woodruff Gilliam, whose father, John Woodruff won gold in the 800-meter race in Berlin as a 21-year-old University of Pittsburgh student, said she was touched that her father’s historical achievement—and those of the other Black athletes—were finally being spotlighted.
“I was quite moved when they asked us to step up to represent our fathers, grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers,” she told the AFRO.
“What made it so bittersweet is that our parents were not invited to the White House by President Roosevelt in 1936 because he didn’t want to upset his Southern White supporters. So, after 80 years of not being recognized….Better late than never, I suppose. And, it was even more special to be acknowledged by the first African-American president.”
President Obama also honored Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who made their way into the history books during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City when, after winning gold and bronze, respectively, in the 200-meter sprint, they raised their gloved fists in a “human rights salute” during the playing of the American anthem.
“We’re proud of them,” the president said on Sept. 29. “Their powerful silent protest in the 1968 Games was controversial, but it woke folks up and created greater opportunity for those that followed.”
Smith’s and Carlos’ powerful protest was symptomatic of a sad irony that the pair and the Black Olympians of the ’36 Games had to face—representing a Jim Crow America that devalued their humanity.
“They didn’t have their rights in America, but they represented America proudly and gracefully,” said Deborah Riley Draper, producer of a new film chronicling the 1936 athletes called “Olympic Pride: American Prejudice,” in an interview with CNN.
In a 1996 interview with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, John Woodruff recalled his pride in his achievement: “It was very definitely a special feeling in winning the gold medal and being a black man. We destroyed his [Hitler’s] master race theory, whenever we start winning those gold medals. So I was very proud of that achievement and I was very happy, for myself as an individual, for my race, and for my country.”
But he also recalled the sobering realities encountered when he returned home: “After the Olympics, we had a track meet to run at Annapolis, at the Naval Academy. Now here I am, an Olympic champion, and they told the coach that I couldn’t run. I couldn’t come. So I had to stay home, because of discrimination. That let me know just what the situation was. Things hadn’t changed. Things hadn’t changed.”
That those 18 athletes achieved such heights under such trying circumstances makes their legacy even greater, Woodruff Gilliam said.
“My father’s legacy as well as that of the other African-American athletes in the 1936 Olympic Games was to set the stage for other athletes of color to participate in the Games,” she said, adding, “You could see the legacy our parents created by how many Black athletes—Olympians and Paralympians—were there at the White House.”
President Obama, too, seemed to recognize that legacy, highlighting the achievements of Black 2016 Olympians like Allyson Felix, a six-time track-and-field gold medalist; Simone Biles, the only American gymnast to win four golds in a single Olympiad; Simone Manuel, the only African-American woman to win a swimming gold; Michelle Carter, the only American woman to obtain gold in the shot put; and others.
“That’s one of the most extraordinary things about our Olympic team,” the president said. “There’s no kid in America who can’t look at our Olympic team and see themselves somewhere.”