1936 was more than Jesse Owens — there were 17 more blacks who made history
‘Olympic Pride, American Prejudice’
African-Americans were experiencing a true struggle for their lives in 1936. America presented black folk with deplorable racial and social struggles and the implacable racial divide resulted in Americans being treated as second-class citizens.
But it didn’t stop 18 of them from taking a trip to Germany to compete in the biggest competition in the world.
“The American Negro.” A name that rang throughout the 1936 Olympic games. Eighty years ago, 18 black athletes stood proud and resilient during a time when Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler was coming to power. But only one got credit. It was Jesse Owens. Those other 17 young men and women carried the weight of a race and a nation on their shoulders and did so with grace and dignity.
Filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper tells their little-known story in a documentary narrated by actor and two-time Golden Globe nominee Blair Underwood.
Olympic Pride, American Prejudice sheds light on the broader experience of all the 1936 black Olympic athletes, their struggles and how their opportunity to compete paved the way for African-Americans in Olympic competition today.
These athletes set a precedent for the safety of black athletes’ ability to compete. Their bravery and assertive actions assured that black and Jewish athletes could compete during that time and be treated fairly and without prejudice. One of their passions was to disprove Hitler and show the world that African-American athletes were not inferior.
“I started this film because I was actually researching a jazz singer who was interned in Nazi Germany, and her story led me to the 18 African-Americans who defied Hitler and Jim Crow to win medals at the 1936 Olympics,” Draper said.
Draper once was an advertising executive, but she had a love for storytelling. So she turned that passion into a labor of love that eventually became her full-time career. She tells stories about courage and valor and has instinctively become a voice for those who are unable to tell their stories.
“The courage that it takes to stand for your country when your country isn’t standing for you was remarkable to me because these 18 Olympians were patriotic, they were smart, they were elite athletes, but they didn’t enjoy all of the privileges and all of the opportunities that their other teammates enjoyed,” Draper added.
Only two black women landed spots on the women’s track team. Draper introduced Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett. Their children told their stories with bits and pieces of their history. After thorough research and plenty of obstacles, Draper located and interviewed family members of these athletes.
“We were able to reach 85 percent of the families,” Draper said. “And for us, we were like whoa, Mack Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s brother, that’s pretty incredible. And Ralph Metcalfe — Congressman Ralph Metcalfe was also a 1936 Olympian. Dr. James Lavelle was a 1936 Olympian. So when we started looking at the careers and the trajectory of these people, we knew that they were special and we knew that this was something really big.
“It was a bit of forensic investigations getting their names because they called them different things in different newspapers, the record keeping wasn’t that great in the ’30s, so being able to have to figure out their actual names and being able to find their families from there was kind of the next step.”
Draper explained how the athletes persevered and did incredible things that the world should know.
“It was an American story. It was an Olympic story, which means it’s a global story, which means it’s a human story,” she said. “But it’s that irony and that paradox of being free in Germany and under Jim Crow in America and all this intolerance in Germany and then the Germans cheering for the Americans, the Americans cheering for the Americans, but the black Americans still can’t vote or ride in the front of the bus, but they could ride in front of the bus in Germany, all of that.”
According to Draper, they left their mark on collegiate sports and Olympic sports.
“We are benefiting from it, whether we know their names or not, we benefit from their actions and we benefit from all the work they put in, so I think it would be nice to have them to be recognized in an integral part of history,” she said.
Draper in some way has embodied these athletes by representing them.
“I want the White House and Congress to recognize these 18 African-Americans as heroes. They never got their chance, the 18 of them to go to the White House together but I would love for them to be recognized for their effort. They were pioneers, they changed the game and the face of sports, they were completely undefeated,” she said. “There is not another group of African-Americans in history who had to face both Jim Crow and Adolph Hitler in a competitive environment. And there will never be a group that would do it again. There wasn’t one before them or after them.”
Draper decided to approach Underwood because she’d become familiar with his love of history.
“You know what, Blair is a student of history, that man reads every book, he wants to know every detail and every fact about not just about African-American history, but history in particular,” she said. “We showed him the trailer and he said yes — it was that simple. I wish I could tell you some crazy story about how we got Blair Underwood, but Blair saw the trailer, Blair said, ‘This is a story that needs to be told. I will, and if you will have me, I will executive produce.’ And we said yes and yes.”
When Underwood got the call, he knew it was something he couldn’t turn down.
“Once I saw the trailer, I called her immediately and said, not only would I be honored to narrate the film — I really would be — I would love to join your team,” he said, “to help fan the flames and beat the drum and get the word out about this incredible story and an amazing film.”
Underwood said, in many ways, the 1936 team that went into Nazi Germany represented a “civil rights movement without the protests, without the speeches and the marches, but it was a collective civil rights movement on that track field.”
Draper’s first film, Versailles ’73: An American Runway Revolution, chronicled the U.S. designers’ groundbreaking victory against their French counterparts on Nov. 28, 1973, at the Palace of Versailles through the recollections of the people, footage, artifacts and iconic African-American models who were involved.
The film is now showing in New York at Cinema Village, 22 E. 12th St., New York, NY 10003, 212-924-3363 (ticket info: https://www.cinemavillage.com/Now-Playing/olympic-pride-american-prejudice.html) and in Los Angeles at Monica Film Center, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, CA 90401, (310) 478-3836 (ticket info: http://www.laemmle.com/films/41067).