Like most Americans, I suppose I assumed that Jesse Owens was the only African-American athlete at the 1936 Olympic Games. All the documentaries I remember seeing didn’t say that directly, but they focused solely on Owens and gave that impression. A new documentary, Olympic Pride, American Prejudice not only shows that there were 18 African-American athletes on the US team in Berlin, but that they were remarkably successful in winning medals and representing their country.
Of course, I learned about these other athletes when working on the episode we did on Jesse Owens and the “Hitler Snub.” But until I saw Olympic Pride, American Prejudice, I didn’t realize how successful they were at the Olympics. Let me give you some examples:
- Dave Albritton (high jump, silver)
- Cornelius Johnson (high jump, gold)
- James LuValle (400-meter run, bronze)
- Ralph Metcalfe (4×100-meter relay, gold; 100-meter dash, silver)
- Frederick “Fritz” Pollard Jr. (100-meter hurdles, bronze)
- Mack Robinson (200-meter dash, silver)
- Archie Williams (400-meter run, gold)
- Jack Wilson (bantamweight boxing, silver)
- John Woodruff (800-meter run, gold)
The other African-Americans on the team who didn’t win medals were: Art Oliver (heavyweight boxing); John Brooks (broad jump); Howell King (heavyweight boxing); Willis Johnson (heavyweight boxing); James Clark Atkinson (middleweight boxing); John Terry (weightlifting); Tidye Pickett (women’s track and field); and Louise Stokes (women’s track and field).
The full US Olympic team in 1936 was made up of 359 athletes. They won a total of 56 medals. 14 of those medals were won by African-Americans. These 18 African-American athletes made up 5% of the US team, yet they won 25% of the American medals. That’s five times the rate you would expect based on the number of competitors. And perhaps an even more astounding statistic is the number of medals won by African-Americans not named Jesse Owens. If you take Owens out of the equation, the remaining African-American athletes won 10 medals. That’s 18% of the US medals won, again, by 5% of the team.
In the documentary, several prominent historians discuss how these athletes, combined with African-American participation in World War II, helped open American eyes to the African-American struggle for recognition, legitimacy, and equal rights. They helped lay the foundation for the civil rights triumphs of the 1960s and 1970s.
Many Americans are probably like me. When first learning about these 17 other African-American heroes at the 1936 Olympics, these phrases came to mind: “I just assumed” Jesse Owens was the only one; “it never occurred to me”; and “I didn’t think about it.” Is it any wonder that African-Americans felt “invisible” in broader American culture, and have had to struggle so hard for recognition, when a sports history fan like me didn’t know about these pioneers until 2016?
Join me in watching Olympic Pride, American Prejudice, Buzzkillers, and have your eyes opened.
Many thanks Ronda Penrice for her excellent article on this subject in a recent edition of The Root magazine: