More than 64 years removed from when he stood on top of the figurative world, Herb Douglas still holds a firm place among the legends of track and field and the legends of African American athletes. It’s a lifetime few have the chance to live and thanks to his advancements, few are forced to.
Known today as the oldest living African American Olympic medalist, Douglas won a bronze medal in the long jump at the 1948 London Games. That is at the very base of his story and would be a true shame if that is all that is known of the man who has shaken hands with the likes of Nelson Mandela, Dr. Martin Luther King, called Jesse Owens a true friend and was paid an endearing compliment by President Barack Obama. While not as famous as the four aforementioned figures, Douglas may be just as mesmerizing.
Less than one month before his 91st birthday, Douglas speaks with flawless candor. He tells stories of things that happened more than 70 years ago by citing exact names and dates with accuracy that you would think he were reading a text book. He still remains active and swimming and checking email are a regular part of his routine.
The time he has spent dedicated to the advancements of African American athletes has seemed to go by quickly, which means, in his own words, that he is enjoying his life.
Times were different when Douglas arrived in London for the 1948 Games. He still felt the momentum from Owens winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and forever crushing Adolph Hitler’s dream of an Aryan supremacy. In the first Olympic Games following World War II, Douglas arrived in London on a boat and was forced to stay on an air force base Quonset with the other colored athletes. With attention lacking, after winning the bronze medal, he did just one media interview.
Douglas experienced the height of the Civil Rights movement. He grew up in the Pittsburgh area at a time of great unjust in the world. The first job he took following college was with Pabst Brewing. Due to his skin color, his supervisor refused to shake his hand upon introduction. However, following a short time on the job, Douglas was the only employee that was requested back.
He had obvious athletic ability and in 1945 accepted a scholarship to play football at the University of Pittsburgh. At the time he was one of only 39 African Americans playing Division I football in the United States.
Facing circumstances most would be unable to overcome, Douglas consistently persevered. A snowball-effect within the African American community, Douglas had the chance to meet President Obama. As the two shook hands, the first African American President of the United States said to Douglas, “I am standing on your shoulders.”
“He didn’t have to say any more. I understood and he understood what we were going through as African Americans,” Douglas said about the encounter.
He lists Obama along with actor and Civil Rights activist Paul Robeson, former South African president Nelson Mandela and 2012 Olympic all-around gold medalist Gabrielle Douglas as the top African American individuals he has met and evidence that his life has encompassed the entire gamut surrounding African Americans.
Much of Douglas’ life has been spent in an attempt to give back and help to honor those who have helped him along the way. At the top of that list is Owens.
“The 1936 Olympic Games was the renaissance of African American athletes in sports,” Douglas says vividly. “We had athletes before, but it wasn’t until 1936 when we had the world stage. That was a triggering moment for African Americans.”
The difference those particular Games made were among the reasons that in 1980 Douglas created the International Amateur Athletic Association to honor Owens, his mentor, idol and friend.
“I wanted to give back to him because he was such a compassionate, wonderful, easy going guy and that was the reason he could transcend the black community to the white community,” Douglas said.
Similar to the pyramid of success from legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, Douglas has four steps to success of his own – analyze, initialize, organize and follow through – that helped him become one of the first African American vice presidents of a national company (Shieffelin & Co.).
It was the same model that helped him to overcome additional adversity as a child. His father lost his sight when he was five years old and Douglas was forced to spend his nights working in his father’s car garage.
They are a small number of the stories that Douglas can recall with complete accuracy and does so with a consistent laugh and a smile.
He traveled to London over the summer to partake in the recent Olympic Games. It was the 12th Olympic Games he has attended. Sixty-four years earlier London was in ruins following World War II and, in his words, was just trying to “get by with an Olympic movement.” The times had changed and the setting had changed, but the impact Douglas had made will remain forever.
USA Track & Field members can have access to both the audio and the transcripts from the entire interview held with Herb Douglas by clicking here.