From left, Mack Robinson, Dave Albritton, Jesse Owens, Cornelius Johnson and John Woodruff are shown at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES
As each Olympic Games recedes into history, what remains are the stories—of hard earned triumph, of tantalizing defeat and noble failure, of sportsmanship for better or worse, and even sometimes of heartbreaking tragedy. With Europe hurtling toward war in 1936, the Berlin Olympics provided a dramatic stage where many such stories originated, and perhaps none has received more acclaim than that of Jesse Owens, whose four gold medals in track and field provided an undeniable rebuke to contemporary claims of racial superiority.
But Jesse Owens was hardly the only African American to represent the United States in 1936. Film maker Deborah Riley Draper’s new documentary “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” tells the stories of the 17 other African Americans who also made the team, competed in 1936 Summer Games, and returned to build a post-Olympic life in a racially divided society.
The documentary uses archival film, news accounts, interviews and items from the personal archives of the Olympians and their families in a manner that The New York Times describes as “deft and comprehensive.”
Consider, for example, the story of sprinter Tidye Pickett. She was the first African American woman to be named to the US Olympic team, for the Los Angeles Games of 1932. She was ultimately not allowed to compete in her home country’s Olympics, however, and believed that racism and politics were to blame for her exclusion.
She continued to run with great success, and made the Olympic team again in 1936. Despite being a favorite, she broke her foot in her first semi-final and was out of the competition. There were no Games in 1940 and 1944 because of the war, but after her athletic career ended she became a teacher and served for decades as the principal of a Chicago elementary school which was renamed in her honor upon her retirement.
Tragedy, tantalizing defeat, noble failure and triumph against great odds were all pieces of her story, though not necessarily where she might have expected to find each of them.
Among others profiled are Jackie Robinson’s older brother Mack, a 200M runner, and future U.S House Member Ralph Metcalfe.
In all, these 18 athletes, dubbed by one newspaper as the “Black Eagles,” accounted for 14 medals of the 56 taken by the American team, eight of them gold.
The film excels at placing the Berlin Games in historical context, and presents vignettes of the black Olympians with a well-established context for their stories. It is an especially apt movie for young people, athletes or not, to learn of these American lives that mattered in their unique ways, whether meeting challenges larger than themselves on the global stage or closer to home.
As Black History Month drew to a close in February, the N.C. Museum of Art presented a special screening of the documentary, in part because of some Carolina connections. The film was co-produced by Triangle area resident
Dr. Amy Tiemann and her media firm Spark Productions. The evening featured a remote question and answer session with the film’s writer and director Deborah Riley Draper, linked via internet from her home in Atlanta. Also on hand for comments were Dr. Tiemann and the film’s narrator (and additional co-producer) actor Blair Underwood.