Oldest Living Black Olympian On His Experience At The 1948 Games

Jul 18, 2016

Herb Douglas is 94 years old and a graduate of Taylor Allderdice High School, as well as the University of Pittsburgh. He’s also a 1948 bronze medalist and the oldest living black Olympian.

Douglas’ passion for the Olympics and sports ignited when he met Jesse Owens.

“He won four gold medals, earned two Olympic records and he didn’t win the O’Sullivan Award," Douglas said. "And I was cognizant of that."

Douglas competed as an amateur athlete and was often told at Taylor Allderdice that he had Olympic potential. Besides Owens, the sociopolitical climate largely kept black athletes out of the realm of professional sports.

“We had no one to idolize,”said Douglas of the time before Owens and the 1936 Olympic Games.

That same year that Owens competed, black Olympians won eight out of the 15 track and field medals.

During the 12-year hiatus from Olympic celebrations during World War II, Douglas trained every morning after his third-shift job at his father’s garage on Ellsworth Avenue. He said he prayed each night for the chance to compete in the Olympics.

In 1948, London, still recovering from the war, hosted the Olympics in which Douglas completed. Black Olympians were segregated and housed together, but he said instead of discouraging the athletes, it brought them together. 

That energy became tangible in the medals the athletes collected. Every single athlete housed in the segregated army bunker in London left with a medal.

Douglas saw that decorated return to the Olympics as result of the 1936 Olympics and the eight medals earned by black athletes, like Jesse Owens. That year marked a renaissance for black athletes, so he pursued the creation of a 22-minute documentary called The Renaissance Period of the African American in Sports.

The film highlights the nine black athletes who earned medals in 1936 in a primarily-white Germany. His tight connection to the athletes was crucial to his role as co-producer. It was his passion for the subject matter that brought the film to life.

The film will be shown at the Heinz History Center tonight followed by a discussion panel that will feature Douglas and other black athletes such as Harrison Dillard, Bob Beamon and John Carlos for an event titled “Breaking Barriers: An Evening with Olympic Greats at the Heinz History Center.”

Douglas insisted that the film travel to colleges and museums across the country, but he wanted to start with the History Center in his hometown, which he said he always looks forward to visiting. 

“I’ve seen the transition from the steel mills being demolished to the beautiful that I never saw growing up because of the smog,” said Douglas. “It’s a beautiful city.”

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