(UPDATED 8/3/2012, PREVIOUS VERSION FIRST PUBLISHED 7/16/2008)
During the 2012 Olympic Games in London, which have the motto, “Inspire A Generation,” it would be appropriate to reserve some shout outs for the black athletic club pioneers who, generations ago, helped make today’s successes possible through their efforts.
One of the leading African American sports organizations of the 1900s and 1910s was the Manhattan-based St. Christopher Club. This club was known mostly for its championship-winning basketball team, nicknamed the “Black and Red Machine,” which featured a young Paul Robeson as well as a young Clarence “Fats” Jenkins, the first African American superstar in the sport, who would eventually join the New York Renaissance.
However, the St. Christopher Club was also known for its successes in developing great track and field athletes. At the turn of the last century, track and field was a headline-grabbing sport, much more so than the relatively new game of basketball.
Moreover, African American tracksters were becoming exceptional, inspired by American hurdler George Poage’s two bronze medals at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, the first medals for any black Olympian.
This trend was made possible through the existence of a small network of African American athletic clubs that included St. Christopher, the Alpha Physical Culture Club, and the Smart Set Athletic Club, all of New York City, as well as the Inter-state Athletic Association of Washington, D.C., the Scholastic Athletic Association of Pittsburgh, and others.
Furthermore, by the 1910s, this trend was gaining recognition beyond the small black amateur club network.
For example, here’s an excerpt from a 1914 article published in the New York Times:
NEGRO ATHLETES WIN MANY HONORS
Season’s Performances Show Colored Runners to be Factors in A.A.U. Meets
Recent performances of the colored athletes in the Metropolitan District of the Amateur Athletic Union have attracted widespread attention and should a corresponding progress be made by them in the next three or four years many laurels now worn by white athletes will pass into the keeping of negroes. This success has been more noticeable during the last month than at any other time, and the fact that four titles were won by colored athletes at the recent small clubs championships, and negroes were prominent in the point table of the Metropolitan title meet, has caused a flutter of excitement among the registered athletes of the A.A.U. Nor is the present crop of negro runners likely to suddenly cease, for there are many promising colored boys in the public schools of Greater New York.
That this article appeared prominently in the New York Times at all was remarkable in and of itself. That’s because A.A.U. had only recently become racially integrated.
Even more amazing was the critical role that African American athletic clubs had played in developing these athletes. This fact that did not escape observers, as the Times confirmed:
Many of the colored athletes prominent in athletic circles were graduated from public schools in Greater New York, but, unlike former years, when promising colored athletes received little consideration or encouragement, the student upon graduation can now join a colored athletic organization and continue to compete. There are three negro athletic clubs in the metropolitan district, which are making rapid strides in the athletic world, and scarcely an open meet is now held that does not find representatives of these clubs in the list of competitors. These organizations are the Salem-Crescent A.C. and the St. Christopher’s Club of New York and the Smart Set A.C. of Brooklyn.
The successes of these black organizations in 1914 were inspired by predecessors, and in turn inspired others, which led to further success.
It took until the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, France – the VIII Olympiad – for an African American athlete in any event to win an individual gold medal.
That honor went to DeHart Hubbard, who was the long jump champion. Hubbard had been trained and inspired by Hunter Johnson, the founder of the Pittsburgh-based Scholastic Athletic Association only a few years earlier.
Hubbard in turn inspired Jesse Owens, when Owens was a youngster, as well as countless others. And so on.
That’s the real meaning of, “Inspire A Generation.” African Americans have been all too keenly aware of what that means. In track and field, all of the amazing modern day successes began with a basic idea a century ago.
“Every revolution was first a thought in one man’s mind,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 18th century American philosopher and essayist, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the “Shot Heard ‘Round The World” – the flashpoint on April 19, 1775 that signaled the start of the American Revolution.
May we remember Emerson’s words during these Olympics, or during any Olympiad for that matter.
When we look at the number of African American athletes on the 2012 United States Olympic Track and Field Team, as well as on prior teams, I believe our country owes a debt of gratitude to the original pioneers – the men of those early athletic clubs as well as many others – who first thought to develop competitive track and field programs for African Americans when none previously existed.
This holds true for other sports as well.
In 2012, U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas made history by becoming the first person of African descent of any nationality to win an Olympic gold medal in an individual gymnastic event. She was the Women’s All Around champion.
Imagine the impact she will make for years and years to come. Bravo!
Each time we celebrate the U.S.A.’s medal count, we ought to reserve a shout out for all such accomplishments, to the pioneers of generations ago who made them possible by creating the starting blocks with nothing but ideas.