Advertisement

Filmmaker discusses African-American athletes who participated in 1936 Games in Berlin

Promotional trailer for the documentary "Olympic Pride, American Prejudice." (Courtesy video)

On Sunday, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture will hold a 2 p.m. screening of "Olympic Pride, American Prejudice," a 2016 documentary recalling the 18 black American athletes who participated in the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, Germany. The Baltimore Sun spoke with filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper, who will introduce the movie and discuss it afterward.

Question: Most of us equate the 1936 Olympics with Jesse Owens. Period. What led you to flesh out the other 17 forgotten African-American athletes who took part in those Summer Games?

Advertisement

Riley Draper: Sometimes we get just the top layer of history, so it's critically important that we learn the full scope of a story. For instance, there were two black women on the team at a time when men weren't especially interested in seeing women compete in sports, much less black women. Also, the other 15 men who were not Jesse Owens did remarkable things as well, and Jesse's success was directly linked to his teammates. He was not isolated; they made each other better.

Q: There nearly was an American boycott of the '36 Games because of the Nazi regime. Had Owens and the other black athletes stayed home and not starred on a world stage, would major league baseball have integrated a decade later?

Riley Draper: I have to believe coaches were so impressed by what they saw in these athletes that they opened up a little more and began to think, "I want to win" —and winning is more important than discriminating. Also, I'm sure that Mack Robinson, who was on that track team, told his brother Jackie, "I was in Nazi Germany, so go ahead, kid, it'll be just fine."

Q: How much chutzpah did it take for these athletes to go into Adolf Hitler's backyard, not knowing the outcome?

Riley Draper: Oh my gosh, can you even imagine? You're hanging out in the Olympic Village, you've got your American flag, and you're black? The nerve! When you think of someone like Louise Stokes, a high school senior from Boston who was there without a coach or chaperone, and who had the wherewithal to compete, it's extraordinary.

Q: Truth is, they encountered none of the racial bias on the streets of Berlin that they did at home, correct?

Riley Draper: You know, Jim Crow was an American thing. Oppression is universal but the way Jim Crow plays out is very American. Hatred is all the same, but in Germany there wasn't the you-have-to-sit-in-the-back-of-the-bus kind of thing.

Q: And several black athletes wanted to thumb their noses at Hitler during the opening ceremonies?

Riley Draper: Absolutely. You're talking about kids, right? They'd heard all this hype, on the boat coming over, and thought, "Man we're going to show this dude up."

Q: How much discrimination did these athletes endure from their own team? The film notes that several were sent home under false pretenses, or replaced at the starting line by white athletes.

Riley Draper: Stokes didn't get to compete because she was switched out at the last minute, and Howell King, a boxer from Detroit who was as tough as anything, was switched out so (a white man) could fight. Think about it: you're at the mercy of (Olympic officials), some of whom regard you as second-class citizens, and who are going to do what they think they can (get away with). Institutionalized racism was an easier track to follow than doing the right thing.

Q: The documentary was four years in the making. In doing the research, what was the biggest surprise?

Riley Draper: The fact that Germans embraced these African-Americans and invited them to dinner. You forget that, in every regime, everyone doesn't think the same. There are pockets of independent thinking. You want to clump everybody into one category, but that's not fair, or right.

Q: All 18 of the athletes are now deceased, but two — runners James LuValle and Archie Williams — speak for themselves in audio clips. Unearthing those tapes must have been like discovering King Tut's tomb.

Advertisement

Riley Draper: I was like, oh my God, oh my God. Who better to tell their stories than them? And then to find the Nazi radio tape, where they interviewed Owens — I thought, you've got to be kidding me. I felt like Harrison Ford in "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Q: You point out that some black Olympians prospered after the Games — a U.S. congressman, a pilot and a chemist — but that others did not. The film shows Owens, who'd won four gold medals, reduced to sprinting against race horses, and reports that Mack Robinson worked as a street sweeper, wearing his Olympic jacket to keep warm on the job. Why the disparity?

Riley Draper: That reflects America. For those in California, like Williams and LuValle, there was greater opportunity and access. It was the time and place that created positive or negative opportunities for them.

Q: The black Olympians won eight gold, four silver and two bronze medals. Why did President Franklin Roosevelt not shake hands with them on their triumphant return?

Riley Draper: Roosevelt didn't send them a telegram, either. At the moment, he was interested in the election and having voters who'd supported him continue to do so. I'm sure FDR understood very clearly that he had to pick and choose his battles.

Q: Was it moving for you to show film footage of these athletes to their family members who'd never seen it?

Riley Draper: They cried, and they made me cry. They were so touched. If you saw footage of your parents in Nazi Germany competing in sports, how would you react?

Q: What should audiences take from this film?

Riley Draper: That these kids showed the world what courage looks like. Because of their presence, people suspended their hatred, even if just for the length of a 200-meter sprint. People cheered, and that's what we have to do, to act as a team and work together and pass the baton because it's a relay — we're all in this together. It's all our world and we have to represent mankind.

Q: What impact has the documentary had, given the social and political polarization in America today?

Riley Draper: A lot of people are using (the film) to bring cross-cultural dialogues to the forefront and to have people examine their own biases, so we can understand how to move forward as a united states, not a divided country that labels people and pulls them apart. America is best when we all have Team USA on our backs.

Advertisement
Advertisement