Black U.S. Olympians Won In Nazi Germany Only To Be Overlooked At Home : The Torch Jesse Owens is still the most famous name from the 1936 Olympics in Nazi-controlled Berlin. But a new documentary highlights 17 other African-American athletes who also made their mark.
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Black U.S. Olympians Won In Nazi Germany Only To Be Overlooked At Home

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Black U.S. Olympians Won In Nazi Germany Only To Be Overlooked At Home

Black U.S. Olympians Won In Nazi Germany Only To Be Overlooked At Home

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ALLISON AUBREY, HOST:

Eighty years ago this month, the U.S. competed in the Olympic Games held in Nazi Germany.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: On their way to the Olympic Games in Berlin on the USS Manhattan are the best of American athletes.

AUBREY: The best of American athletes in the 1936 newsreel was Jesse Owens. But he wasn't the only black athlete representing the U.S. There were 17 others. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang tells us more about their stories.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: What 17 of the 18 African-American Olympians did in Berlin has largely been forgotten.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: First, Johnson, America. Second, Albritton, America.

WANG: Cornelius Johnson was the 1936 gold medalist in the men's high jump. Dave Albritton won silver. Another silver medalist that year was one of Jackie Robinson's older brothers, Mack, and future U.S. Congressman Ralph Metcalfe brought home two medals. Altogether, they won 14 medals, eight of them gold.

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JOHN WOODRUFF: Determination. That's what it takes - a lot of fire in the stomach.

WANG: During a 1996 oral history interview for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, gold medalist John Woodruff spoke about winning the men's 800-meter race in Adolf Hitler's Germany.

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WOODRUFF: It was very definitely a special feeling in winning the gold medal and being a black man. We destroyed his master race theory whenever we start winning those gold medals.

WANG: Unlike Woodruff, two Jewish athletes on the U.S. team did not get a shot at winning any medals. They were benched at the last minute.

The same thing happened to Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes in 1932 when they became the first black women to qualify for the U.S. team, but were later replaced with white runners. Pickett and Stokes were eager to finally compete in Berlin until Pickett broke her foot during a semifinal race, and Stokes was replaced again with a white teammate.

DEBORAH RILEY DRAPER: I think she could have been the first black woman to bring home a gold medal for America.

WANG: Deborah Riley Draper wrote, directed and produced a new documentary called "Olympic Pride, American Prejudice." It includes another story of disappointment, involving American boxer Howell King. He was sent home from Berlin by the U.S. boxing team manager, supposedly because of homesickness. Draper says King suspected the manager wanted to replace him with a white boxer.

DRAPER: Howell King himself said, I didn't quit. I took a 10-day boat to Berlin. Why would I quit and want to go all the way back to Detroit?

WANG: All of the African-American athletes at the 1936 Olympics should be remembered, Draper says, not just Jesse Owens.

DRAPER: It was easier to tell the story of one African-American because that's an anomaly. But 18 - that's a lot for Jim Crow newspapers to want to report on.

WANG: For many of the 18, living in a racially integrated Olympic Village in Berlin was a high point they would never come close to again.

DRAPER: They were Olympic athletes when they were on the medal stand. When they came back home to a segregated America, they came back to being negroes.

WANG: Some entered academia. Others held elected office. Many struggled to establish stable careers, including Jackie Robinson's brother Mack, a silver medalist in the 200-meter dash who once used his Olympic jacket to keep warm while working as a street sweeper.

Still, they all represented a generation of pioneers who chiseled away at stereotypes, according to Charles Ross, an historian at the University of Mississippi.

CHARLES ROSS: You have to have Jesse Owens and the other 17 African-Americans before you could have John Carlos, Ali, George Foreman.

WANG: Ross says the 18 African-American Olympians of 1936 understood that their dreams had to be limited. Jesse Owens may have won four gold medals in Berlin, but months after he returned home, Owens told a crowd, the president didn't even send a telegram. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

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