Question of the Month:

African Americans and the Olympics

July 2010

Q:  Looking at recent Olympic games, it is hard to imagine a time when African Americans were not involved. Would you happen to know the name of the first African American to win a gold medal in an individual event in the Olympics?

--Oscar Hanks - Cleveland, Ohio

A:  In 1924, at the Olympic Games in Paris, William DeHart Hubbard won the gold medal for the running long jump, becoming the first African American to win an Olympic gold medal in an individual event. His historic jump of 24 feet, 5 1/8 inches was one foot short of the Olympic record at that time. On the way to the Paris Games, Hubbard had written a letter to his mother that included these words, "At last I am ready to depart for Europe. It has taken years of hard work to get this far, but I am nearing my ultimate goal."

William Hubbard Mr. Hubbard was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on November 25, 1903. He was graduated from Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati, where he long-jumped inches short of the world's record and ran the 100-yard dash under ten seconds. Here was a young man with a combination of world class athletic talent and solid academic credentials, yet many colleges and universities would not recruit him because he was an African American; thankfully, the University of Michigan recruited him and he graduated with honors but not before becoming one of the greatest sprinters and long jumpers in Big Ten history. He was a three-time National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) champion -- outdoor long jump in 1923 and 1925, and 100-yard dash in 1925. He won seven Big Ten Conference championships -- indoor 50-year dash in 1923 and 1925; outdoor long jump in 1923, 1924, and 1925; and outdoor 100-yard dash in 1924 and 1925. He set the long jump world record of 25 feet 10¾ inches in June 1925 at the NCAA championships, and equaled the world record of 9.6 seconds for the 100-yard dash at Cincinnati, Ohio the following year. Mr. Hubbard also represented the United States in the 1928 Olympics.

Mr. Hubbard's stellar NCAA and Olympic careers helped undermine a prevailing stereotype of Blacks as inferior athletes. Today it seems counterintuitive, but in the 1920s it was common to hear stereotypes and pseudo-scientific theories about the inherent athletic inferiority of Black athletes. These ideas served as justifications for denying African Americans opportunities to compete against White athletes, especially in the professional ranks. Blacks would, according to these ideas, be humiliated by competing against Whites. Why? Blacks supposedly lacked the athleticism, intelligence, and emotional development to be top-level athletes. The athletic success of William Hubbard and countless other Americans of African descent has undermined the theory of Black athletic inferiority.

The racism that one finds in a society will often be reflected in ideas about and practices in sports in that society. Stated differently, the history of racism in athletics has closely paralleled the racism in the larger society. Racist ideas were, as described above, used to justify the exclusion of Blacks. When, due to the dominance of African Americans in basketball, football, and track and field, these ideas were no longer tenable, a new stereotype emerged that purported that Blacks were "naturally superior athletes." This modern stereotype -- which, by the way, still dominates much of today's thinking about Black athletes -- suggests that the success of African American athletes has little to do with intelligence, hard work, discipline, and perseverance. As you may have noted, it is all too common to hear that the success of European American athletes is due to their hard work, intelligence, and other non-physical attributes.

After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1927, Mr. Hubbard worked as supervisor of the Department of Colored Work for Cincinnati's Public Recreation Commission. If the name of the Commission sounds strange, keep in mind that in the 1920s much of the United States, including Cincinnati, was entrenched in Jim Crow policies and practices. He remained in this position until 1941, at which time he accepted a job as the manager of Valley Homes, a public housing project in Cincinnati. In 1942, Mr. Hubbard moved to Cleveland to work for the Federal Public Housing Authority as a race relations advisor.

Obviously, William Hubbard was a talented track and field athlete, but he was accomplished in other areas as well. He was, for example, an avid bowler and served as the president of the National Bowling Association in the 1950s. There was also an entrepreneurial side to him as evidenced by his founding of the Cincinnati Tigers, a professional baseball team which played in the Negro American League. In 1957, Mr. Hubbard was elected to the National Track Hall of Fame. On June 23, 1976, he passed from this life.

William Hubbard was the first African American to win gold in an Olympic individual event, but I feel compelled to mention that John Taylor, another Black American, won a gold medal as a member of the 1600-meter relay team at the Games in London in 1908. This does not diminish Mr. Hubbard's role as a cultural pioneer.

July 2010 response by Dr. David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia


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