Discover the astonishing, inspirational, and largely unknown true story of the eighteen African American athletes who competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, defying the racism of both Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South.
Set against the turbulent backdrop of a segregated United States, sixteen black men and two black women are torn between boycotting the Olympic Games in Nazi Germany or participating. If they go, they would represent a country that considered them second-class citizens and would compete amid a strong undercurrent of Aryan superiority that considered them inferior. Yet, if they stayed, would they ever have a chance to prove them wrong on a global stage? To be better than anyone ever expected?
Five athletes, full of discipline and heart, guide readers through this harrowing and inspiring journey. There’s a young and sometimes feisty Tidye Pickett from Chicago, whose lithe speed makes her the first African American woman to compete in the Olympic Games; a quiet Louise Stokes from Malden, Massachusetts, who breaks records across the Northeast with humble beginnings training on railroad tracks. We find Mack Robinson in Pasadena, California, setting an example for his younger brother, Jackie Robinson; and the unlikely competitor Archie Williams, a lanky book-smart teen in Oakland takes home a gold medal. Then there’s Ralph Metcalfe, born in Atlanta and raised in Chicago, who becomes the wise and fierce big brother of the group. Drawing on over five years of research, Draper and Thrasher bring to life a timely story of perseverance and the will to beat unsurmountable odds.
From burning crosses set on the Robinsons’s lawn to a Pennsylvania small town on fire with praise and parades when the athletes return from Berlin, Olympic Pride, American Prejudice is full of emotion, grit, political upheaval, and the American dream. Capturing a powerful and untold chapter of history, the narrative is also a celebration of the courage, commitment, and accomplishments of these talented athletes and their impact on race, sports and inclusion around the world.
Chapter One: The Girls Are Fast CHAPTER ONE THE GIRLS ARE FAST 1923
FOR MANY AMERICANS in 1923, times are good. The United States and the rest of the Western world roar through the twenties with their moving vehicles and motion pictures. The New York Yankees play their first game against the Boston Red Sox in “The House That Ruth Built,” the newly opened Yankee Stadium. Bessie Smith, “The Empress of the Blues,” sings her soulful hits on the radio. Magician Harry Houdini mesmerizes crowds with his stunts and tricks. The country unexpectedly inherits a new leader when President Warren G. Harding has a fatal heart attack on August 2 and Vice President Calvin Coolidge becomes the thirtieth president.
Yet amid an economic boom that doubles America’s wealth from 1920 to 1929, racial unrest only intensifies as Jim Crow laws take hold of the country, spurring the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, whose membership grows to 5 million people. The public becomes accustomed to Klan members, adorned in their hooded white robes and carrying American flags, marching down main streets in parades, proudly included as part of the festivities.
The Great Migration continues from the previous decade and manifests itself with a sea change in the culture and the core beliefs in the black community. Big cities such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Detroit become highly attractive, and very soon black neighborhoods significantly impact metropolitan areas. The change of environment and the chance for new beginnings spur a creative cultural event known as the New Negro Renaissance, or the Harlem Renaissance as it’s more commonly called, where the worlds of literature, music, cinema, and theater all open doors to African American artists and voices.
Popularizing the phrase “the New Negro,” Alain Locke sums up this revolutionary era in a seminal essay with the same title. A Harvard graduate and the first African American Rhodes Scholar, Locke writes that “So for generations in the mind of America, the Negro has been more of a formula than a human being—a something to be argued about, condemned or defended, to be ‘kept down,’ or ‘in his place,’ or ‘helped up,’ to be worried with or worried over, harassed or patronized, a social bogey or a social burden.” Locke sees a sweeping change occurring where “the mind of the Negro seems suddenly to have slipped from under the tyranny of social intimidation and to be shaking off the psychology of imitation and implied inferiority. By shedding the old chrysalis of the Negro problem we are achieving something like a spiritual emancipation.”
With this renewed self-respect and self-dependence, the life of the Negro community is bound to enter a new dynamic phase. The Cotton Club opens in Harlem, the heart of New York, in the same year. The nightclub for white clientele will showcase many famous black performers. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and many others come to grace the stage. The year also sees the publication of Cane, Jean Toomer’s hailed collection of poems and stories highlighting the African American experience.
The ripple effects of the Harlem Renaissance can be seen not only in the world of art, but also in the hearts of young African American kids growing up with a new sense of hope and promise. Two of these are Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes.
“Go!” Charles shouts, loud enough for his voice to echo down the block of their Southside Chicago street.
Tidye Pickett’s eight-year-old limbs begin to sprint though she remains a few feet behind her older brother. With the sun shining on her face, Tidye moves as quickly as a breeze, catching Charles. For as long as Tidye can remember, she has been racing her older brother, trying to keep up. She’s never beaten him before.
Young Tidye knows she’s fast, and today she proves it by reaching the finish line by the tree several steps ahead of Charles. As they catch their breath, Tidye’s cheeks climb her face, stretching into a smile. From that moment on, she will always be the fastest in the family.
Tidye Pickett and her brother, Charles, on their tricycle, Chicago, Illinois.
The first time Tidye Pickett attends the Newsboys Picnic in Washington Park across the street from her home, she can’t imagine just how much she’ll learn about her speed. The Chicago Daily News hosts the picnic for its newspaper delivery boys and will do so twice a year. She and Charles turn their attention to the park, where box lunches are provided and they can play games and run races all afternoon. Tidye might be short for her age, but it doesn’t prevent her from entering the races.
Her neighborhood of Englewood is a thriving community with plenty of department stores and is home to one of the largest theaters around, Southtown Theater. It’s a time before the Great Depression and severe redlining policies that will drastically change the neighborhood in the near future. Tidye’s father, Louis Alfred Pickett, works as a foreman in a foundry for the International Harvester Company, and her mother, Sarah, is employed as a factory clerk.
By the time Tidye is born, Chicago has more than seventy playgrounds and parks along with a few beaches and pools. The city’s park system contains a number of facilities that become home to athletic programs and citywide tournaments. Kids like Tidye compete in a variety of sports such as skating, softball, and track. It is no coincidence that some of the country’s best track and field athletes of the twenties and thirties are products of Chicago’s athletic programs.
The first day at the picnic, Tidye enters one race and wins a baseball cap. Then she wins another. After emerging victorious in the third race she is awarded a camera. When she arrives home that evening, sweaty and tired from all the races she’s run, her mother sees her loot and demands an explanation.
“They had some races at the picnic in the park,” Tidye says.
“So, how’d you do?” Sarah Pickett asks her daughter, still not understanding where the hats and cameras came from.
“They give you a prize every time you win a race.”
Her mother looks at the winnings with amazement. It won’t be the first time the petite girl surprises someone with her speed. It is, however, the first time Tidye realizes she enjoys seeing that sort of reaction. Especially from someone she loves.
Louise Stokes steps onto the tracks and stares down them. The railroad stretches a quarter of a mile before intersecting with Pleasant Street in Malden, a Massachusetts town just north of Boston. The winter morning is cold enough for snow, but the skies are clear, her jacket too light to keep her warm from the steady wind. It doesn’t take the nine-year-old long to reach her school from her house at 55 Faulkner Street, especially when she runs part of the way. She sprints and steps over every single railroad tie, sometimes counting how many she crosses but eventually losing track after a few hundred. Louise practices every morning before school, and knows she’s becoming fast. Morning after morning, she returns to these tracks. Running feels as natural to her as breathing.
The tracks directly intersect the railways at Malden square, the downtown’s center, where F.N. Joslin’s Department Store (known as the Big Store), the Granada Theater, and the First National Bank are located. Louise’s grammar school is downtown as well. As a hub for manufacturing, Malden wields a population of more than sixteen thousand people, many who use the Boston & Maine and the Saugus Branch railroads to connect to Boston, four miles to the south.
Born in Malden, Louise is the great-granddaughter of slaves and the oldest child in a family of six girls and one boy. Her father, William H. Stokes, holds numerous jobs, including gardening and tending to the lawns of the wealthy in the summer while stoking their furnaces in the winter. Her mother, Mary Wesley Stokes, works all day as a housekeeper. Louise’s job is to pick up her younger brother and sisters from the nursery and take care of them until her parents return home.
Like most children, Louise longs to play basketball or run along the tracks instead of babysitting her siblings, doing chores, and prepping for dinner. Running along the tracks outside offers Louise an escape. For a few fleeting moments, she can even outrun her own thoughts and memories, though she can never lessen the pain of losing her younger sister, Alice. Running doesn’t allow her to escape the memory of Alice’s sweet smile, nor can it take away the guilt she carries as the older sister. The fire that took four-year-old Alice a year earlier will always be in her memory. Her sister was playing with matches when she lit her nightgown on fire, dying a few days later.
Louise Stokes sitting with her sister.
The morning sprint to school is usually no different from her afternoon trip back home. Louise, who keeps to herself and is quieter than most others she knows, runs everywhere she can. After school, she routinely dashes over to Genevieve O’Mara’s house in Salem Place, rushing through the front door without knocking and calling for her friend to come outside. Then she and Genevieve dart over to Amerige Park, where they will spend an afternoon playing.
Today, she can’t avoid the sneers and the scorn from the neighborhood boys.
“You’re not that fast.”
“Who are you running away from?”
“Why don’t you race us? You can’t beat us.”
They’ve done this before, belittling someone younger and smaller than they are. Maybe it’s the fact that she’s a girl, and maybe it’s because she’s a black girl. It doesn’t matter. Louise knows better than to respond to their banter. She also knows the only way to silence someone’s scorn is to prove them wrong. Beating them won’t make them like her, but at least they could no longer make fun of her.
“I’ll race you,” Louise says to them.
The race is over seconds after someone shouts “Go!” The boys are too big, too quick. They all sprint ahead and finish long before she does. Now the energy behind their mockery only seems to intensify.
Louise knows she’s fast, but so are they. This isn’t going to slow her down, however. One of these days, she’ll be old enough to beat them. In the meantime, she keeps her feet fast to the pavement.
ACROSS THE NORTH Atlantic Ocean in a country decimated and in decline, an unlikely leader, average in appearance and unimpressive at five feet nine inches tall, attempts to overthrow both the German and the Bavarian governments. His name is Adolf Hitler.
As Germany reels from the crushing defeat of World War I five years earlier, turmoil and chaos consume the country. Almost 20 percent of the male population of Germany are casualties of the war, and by the twenties the downward economic spiral bottoms out. A dollar is now worth 4.2 trillion marks, as opposed to only 90 marks two years earlier. A single loaf of bread costs 200 billion marks. Communists and socialists alike riot over food shortages and political unrest. In the center of the violence and upheaval lies Bavaria with its Nazi Party, led by Hitler.
A year earlier, in October 1922, Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party rise to power after a successful insurrection, the March on Rome. The following year, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party plot to seize control of the government and march on Berlin in a similar manner. His goal will be to take command of the Bavarian government and military in Munich, thereby forcing the hand of the state’s top officials, Gustave Ritter von Kahr, Otto von Lossow, and Hans Ritter von Seisser. The result leads to the famous Beer Hall Putsch.
On the night of November 8, 1923, as several thousand people fill a beer hall for a rally being held by the Bavarian leaders, Hitler and his uniformed men storm into the building and burst through the thousands. Hitler jumps onto a chair and stands in front of the crowd, firing off a round from his Browning and commanding everyone to be silent.
“The national revolution has begun!” he shouts.
With the crowd watching in silence, Hitler informs everyone in the beer hall that they are surrounded by six hundred of his storm troopers (the Sturm Abteilung, or SA) and that no one can leave. He then declares the Bavarian government deposed and the armed forces now under his command. He is both lying and exaggerating.
A standoff ensues. However, Hitler is unsuccessful at convincing the state’s officials, Kahr, Lossow, and Seisser, to join his side. He calls on the truly captive audience in the hall, pleading for them to join him in the German revolution. Being a master orator, Hitler wins over the crowd and temporarily regains momentum.
Before the night is over, however, the furor dissipates, leaving Hitler with few options. He decides to appeal to the public by marching with three thousand of his men in the streets of Munich. They sing songs that proclaim “Deutschland! Deutschland!” as they proceed through the stone streets. Once again, he feels confident this will work. Yet after they are met with resistance that includes both the police and the army, a skirmish turns into gunfire, leaving four policemen and one Nazi dead. Hitler narrowly escapes death himself, with the man next to him shot in the chest.
As quickly as it began, the rebellion is now over. Two days later, on November 11, Hitler is arrested, accused of committing high treason.
The deposed leader of the Nazi Party is sentenced to five years in prison. Soon Hitler sits in a cell, his hate only fueled by his confinement.
“The right to personal freedom comes second in importance to the duty of maintaining the race,” he writes.
Deborah Riley Draper is an award-winning director and writer known for the films Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution and 2017 NAACP Image Award nominee Olympic Pride, American Prejudice. In 2016, Variety named her one of 10 Documakers to Watch. In 2019, Draper penned the screen adaptation for the upcoming film Coffee Will Make You Black.
Bestselling author Travis Thrasher has written over fifty books and worked in the publishing industry for more than twenty years. His inspirational stories have included collaborations with filmmakers, musicians, athletes, and pastors. He has written fiction in a variety of genres, from love stories and supernatural thrillers to young adult series. He also has co-written memoirs and self-help books.
“Olympic Pride, American Prejudice sprints and soars as the story of these unforgettable athletes takes readers on a gripping moral journey and a by-the-second, heart-pounding race of grace and grit. It is at once powerful and tender, as the athletes emerge as champions in the face of Hitler and the Jim Crow South. Ever timely, Olympic Pride, American Prejudice is a must-read for anyone concerned with race, sports, and politics in America.” —WILLIAM C. RHODEN, columnist, writer at large for ESPN’s The Undefeated, and New York Times bestselling author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete
“Olympic Pride, American Prejudice is a marvel of perseverance and inspiration. Deborah Riley Draper, Travis Thrasher, and Blair Underwood have done the world a favor by bringing into the sunlight the unknown story of eighteen black Olympians who should never be forgotten. This book is both beautiful and wrenching, and essential to understanding the rich history of African American athletes.” —KEVIN MERIDA, editor in chief of ESPN’s The Undefeated
“Cutting across disciplines, this stirring remembrance of athletes who have long been overshadowed will resonate with anyone interested in the Olympics or the history of civil rights.” —PUBLISHERS WEEKLY