In 1936, Jesse Owens took four Olympic gold medals in track and field at the Summer Olympic Games in Berlin.
The event was recorded as the moment when a black American athlete challenged Adolf Hitler’s promulgation of Aryan racial supremacy.
But what do we recall of Cornelius Johnson, David Albritton, James LuValle, Frederick Pollard, Jr. and Archie Williams — the names of just some of the other black American athletes who competed and won medals in the 1936 games?
There were 18 black athletes in Berlin that summer — 16 men, 2 women — who among them took 14 of the 56 total medals won by the U.S. team across all events. We may remember that moment in the broadest sense, but the stories of these individuals have almost been buried.
In her new documentary, “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” Atlanta-based filmmaker Deborah Riley-Draper highlights their stories, their resilience and their triumphs at the 1936 Olympic games, if not in when they returned to their own country.
The film, which debuts next month at the LA Film Festival, is narrated and executive produced by actor Blair Underwood.
It took four years for Draper to complete the documentary and while conducting research in Europe she discovered there was a lot more information about the 18 African-American athletes overseas than in the U.S.
“Their stories faded into obscurity in America,” Draper said. “At the time in America, African-American heroes were not elevated in that manner. But the roots they planted and the springboard they created, there would not have been the integration of sports without them.”
Draper like many other Americans, believed Jesse Owens was the only black athlete to compete in 1936. But then she began to learn the stories of Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes — the two black women from Tuskegee University who attended the 1932 and 1936 games.
James LuValle took a bronze medal in the 400-meter run before going on to become one of the first African-American chemists. Archie Williams took gold in the 400 meter and upon returning home and earning a pilot’s license, he trained the famed Tuskegee Airman.
Mack Robinson, the older brother of baseball’s Jackie Robinson, would take the silver medal in the 200-meter dash and his experience both in Europe and America, likely helped prepare his younger brother for what was to come.
Draper recounts that while Berliners may have believed them to be inferior, the black athletes felt a freedom they hadn’t experienced in their own country. “In their diaries and journals [they said] they had more fun in Nazi Germany for 10 days than they had in America,” said Draper. “They didn’t have Jim Crow. You could sit wherever you wanted to, they just thought you were inferior.”
Berliners wanted their autographs and wanted to meet them. In the film, nonagenarians recall how as boys they snuck to get autographs from the athletes when the adults weren’t looking or held back from clapping to avoid showing too much enthusiasm when the black athletes won an event.
The documentary focuses primarily on six of the 18 athletes — the two women and four of the men, LuValle and Williams, who are present via audio clips, and Ralph Metcalfe and Mack Robinson — but weaves in information about all of their lives both before and after the 1936 games when many of them returned home to find they couldn’t get jobs despite their qualifications. In some cases, their triumphs in the Olympics were ignored by the American press.
“It was easier for Americans to say, ‘You Aryans couldn’t beat the black guy [Owens],’ But if you look at the all the black guys who won medals, you would have to look at yourself,” Draper said.
“These stories really help us deal not with the past but with the present and the future. If we understand racial prejudice and intolerance and have conversations about it as individual people, we will adjust our attitudes and thinking.”