When the XXX Summer Olympics begin on Friday in London this will be a special time for Herb Douglas, a real pioneer in Olympic track and field competition. Douglas, 90, was one of eight African Americans on the 1948 Olympic track team that competed in London.
At the time, he was a 26-year-old track and field standout who placed third in the long jump, winning a bronze medal. Douglas, who grew up in Pittsburgh and now lives in Wynnefield, has vivid memories of the summer games 64 years ago.
“I was fortunate enough to stand on the podium and win a bronze medal,” said Douglas, who jumped 24’9” in the long jump competition. “That’s always unique. That’s somewhat the icing. When you make the trip, that’s excellent, but the icing is standing up on the podium and representing your country. There were only eight of us of color.”
During that time, Jackie Robinson had just broken the color line in major league baseball a year prior. Harry S. Truman was the country’s president. Douglas will have a chance to go back to London in a different era to watch the Olympics with some of his colleagues from the ‘48 team. Needless to say he’s looking forward to the trip.
“I leave on August 1st and arrive on August 2nd,” Douglas said. “It’s really interesting the University of Pittsburgh is sending me over there to be their ambassador. Joining me will be three other ’48 Olympians Mal Whitfield (400 and 800 meters), Dr. Sammy Lee (diver) and Harrison Dillard (100 meters). It’s going to be all of us. It’s going to be exciting.”
The last weeks have been real exciting for Douglas as well. He had a chance to make a trip to Denver to meet President Barack Obama. This was arranged by the Wish of a Lifetime Foundation, which provides over 400 wishes to seniors. Jeremy Bloom, a former Olympian, organized the event through his foundation. Bloom and his organization honored the 1948 Olympic team. Douglas and Dillard had their wishes granted with them meeting President Obama. This was a great moment for Douglas, who has now met six presidents in his lifetime.
“The Wish of a Lifetime was a chance that I got to meet the president,” Douglas said. “Barack Obama is the sixth president that I met. It meant a lot to me. It was also the wish of Harrison Dillard. I had met five presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George Bush (Sr.) and Nelson Mandela.
“I’ve met the first African president of South Africa and President Obama who is the first African-American president. It was great meeting President Obama. He shook my hand and said to me, “I’m standing on your shoulder.”
Douglas is truly a living legend. He holds a special place in the world of sports.
“As you know, I’m the oldest African-American Olympic medalist,” Douglas said. “Alice Coachman (high jumper) is the oldest African-American gold medalist (88 years old). Harrison Dillard (100 meters) is 89. Mal Whitfield (400 and 800 meters) is 87.”
When it comes to track and field, Douglas had a good foundation. He started his college career at Xavier University in New Orleans. He ran track for legendary coach Ralph Metcalfe. In 1941, Douglas long jumped 23’ 11” setting a Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship meet record. In 1942, he joined William Morton, Clarence Doak and Howard Mitchell to help Xavier’s 440-yard relay team become the first Black college to win the Championship of America at the Penn Relays. The team clocked a winning time of 41.7. The Penn Relays honored Xavier University and Douglas at Franklin Field three years ago for this great accomplishment.
After two years at Xavier, Douglas returned home to help his father, who was blind and had a parking garage business in Pittsburgh. Right after World War II in 1945, he went back to college. He decided to attend the University of Pittsburgh. He played football and set a school record in the long jump (24-4.88), which lasted 23 years.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Douglas said. “I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh (in 1948). I played football there. I was on the track team. I sat on the board of trustees for several years. It’s a great school.
“I started my career at Xavier University, a predominant African-American school. We ran in the Penn Relays. Our 4x100 meter relay team was the first Black college to win the Championship of America. Ralph Metcalfe was our coach. That was 70 years ago and 69 years later I received an honorary doctor (degree). That meant a lot to me.”
Jesse Owens was someone who was very close to Douglas. Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He won gold in the 100 meters, 200 meters, 400 meter relay and the long jump.
“Harrison Dillard went to the same high school as Jesse Owens,” he said. “They were very friendly. I got to know Jesse the last 20 years of his life. We used to have the Jesse Owens (Global) Award (for Peace). We had the Arco Games in Philadelphia. I remember introducing Jesse Owens to Eddie Bell (former Penn football great). That’s how the games got started. The award lasted nearly 50 years.”
Douglas wasn’t just a trailblazer in track and field. He was one of the early African Americans to work for a major corporation. In 1963, he joined Schieffelin & Company (now Moet/Hennessy USA) where he became the third African American to reach the level of vice president of a national company.
“I worked for them for 30 years,” Douglas said. “I really liked them. You know, it wasn’t easy for Blacks to get jobs in major companies. We start out at the post office and worked our way up.”
Douglas and his wife Minerva Douglas share an apartment, which has photos of famous people in the world such as Muhammad Ali, Ben Vereen, Henry Kissinger, Nelson Mandela and so many others. Douglas stays in great shape. He keeps active with a number of community efforts. He organized the centennial celebration of African-American athletic accomplishments at the University of Pittsburgh. Douglas has his list of African-American sports icons.
“In the late teens to 1920, we had Jack Johnson (heavyweight fighter),” Douglas said. “In the 1930s, we had Joe Louis (heavyweight champion) and Jesse Owens. In the 1940s, we had Jackie Robinson (Brooklyn Dodgers). In the 1950s, we had Wilt Chamberlain (basketball legend) and in the ’60s, we have Muhammad Ali. They’re our icons.”
Herb Douglas is in a special category, too.