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Herb Douglas, oldest living African-American Olympic medalist, looks back on a lifetime of achievements

2/3/2017
 

In celebration of Black History Month, USATF Alumni Association is saluting several legendary African-American Olympic legends with feature stories. This week focuses on Herb Douglas.

 

For the oldest living African-American medalist Herb Douglas, success is as formulaic as the mantra his father taught him as a child - analyze, organize, initiate and follow through. Now nearing 95-years-old, the 1948 Olympic bronze medalist in the long jump has plenty of examples proving those principles bore fruit.

 

Born on March 9, 1922 in Pittsburgh, nonagenarian Douglas was raised to persevere no matter the hardship. “Education begins in the home, and my inspiration began in the home,” he recalled. His father became blind after a stroke when Douglas was young and spent the rest of his life continuing to provide for the family, along with Douglas’s mother, who also managed the household and finances.

 

He was 14-years-old when Jesse Owens caught the world’s attention at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Against the backdrop of Nazi Germany Owens displayed American grit, winning four gold medals for the United States.

 

“They were the Olympic Games that, for African Americans who followed, we then knew that we could compete in sports as well as anyone in the world,” Douglas said.

 

Owens made a lasting impression on the young athlete, inspiring him to become an Olympian himself. In 1942, he was part of the Xavier University relay team that was the first historically black college/university to win at the storied Penn Relays. He transferred to the University of Pittsburgh in 1945 and won four intercollegiate championships in the long jump.

 

At the 1948 London Olympic Games, Douglas clinched bronze with a jump of 81-1.5/24.9m. However, he returned home to find that life around him had not changed – his next-door neighbor didn’t even know he’d been in the Olympics, and racism still pervaded American society. He stopped competing, earned a master’s degree in Education from Pitt and turned to corporate life.

 

At Schieffelin & Co. in Philadelphia (now Moet Hennessy USA), Douglas rose through the ranks over 30 years and eventually became the third African-American vice president at a major North American company.   

 

During this time he also had the chance to meet with his idol Jesse Owens, and the two grew close. To honor his friend after Owens’s death in 1980, he established the International Amateur Athletic Association and Awards (IAA).

 

The Jesse Owens International Trophy and Jesse Owens Global Award honored esteemed individuals for their athletic and/or philanthropic work to promote peace from a background in sports. Nelson Mandela was one of many world icons to accept the Global award.

 

All these contributions might have been enough for some to settle into an easy retirement. Douglas, however, has never been content to stay idle. Douglas long ago developed a philanthropic passion to promote the success of African-American student-athletes. The spry 94-year-old has served as an emeritus trustee at Pitt since 1999 and received the Chancellor’s Award from longtime supporter Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg.    

 

Last year, Douglas co-produced the 22-minute documentary "The Renaissance Period of the African American in Sports," which chronicled the nine black track and field medalists in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

 

“Of the 15 total gold medals won by U.S. track and field that year, eight of them were won by African Americans,” he noted. “That really inspired us at the time but you never read about it. The only thing that was focused on was Jesse Owens, and rightfully so - he was the icon.”  


The film has been screened at colleges and history centers across the country, followed by panels with other USATF legends such as Edwin Moses, John Carlos, Bob Beamon, Wyomia Tyus and more. Douglas plans for more screenings in the fall, designed to be used as an educational tool for collegiate athletes.

At nearly 95 years old, Douglas remains as productive a citizen as ever. He still swims 20 laps every other morning at his community living center, where he moved with wife Minerva at age 81. He still likes to dance, although he can’t quite move like he did at his 90th birthday party. Most notably, he has no plans to slow down.

 

“I feel very fortunate,” he remarked. “My 95th birthday party is on March 11.”  


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