Pitt to Premiere “Renaissance Period of the African American in Sports”

Issue Date: 
September 8, 2014

Herb Douglas Jr., emeritus trustee and alumnus of the University of Pittsburgh, was one of the first African Americans to become a vice president of a national company, Schieffelin & Company (now Möet Hennessy USA) in 1963. He is also an Olympic medalist, capturing a Bronze medal in the long jump in the 1948 London competition. At age 92, he is the oldest living African American Olympian.

Douglas (EDUC ’48, ’50G) says much of the credit for his breakthrough achievements rests with the accomplishments of nine African American Olympians who shattered records and stereotypes in the 1936 Games in Berlin, paving the way for generations of pioneers.

The accomplishments of the nine are captured in “The Renaissance Period of the African American in Sports,” a documentary that focuses on how the strength, agility, and perseverance, 78 years ago, of the Black American track-and-field stars not only smashed notions of Aryan supremacy but also expanded the fight for equality in the United States.

The documentary will premiere at the University of Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Sept. 9. The public event, hosted by Douglas and Pitt Director of Athletics Steve Pederson, will be held in Alumni Hall. The reception will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the Connolly Ballroom, and will be followed by the film premiere at 7 p.m. in the hall’s seventh-floor auditorium. RSVPs are required: please call the Office of University Communications, 412-624-4147, or pre-register online via email, ucomm@pitt.edu.

Following the documentary, a panel discussion will feature Bob Beamon, who set a still-standing world record in the long jump, winning the Gold in the Mexico City 1968 Olympics; Edwin Moses, who won Gold medals in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1976 and 1984 Olympics and Bronze in the ’88 Olympics in Seoul; and Harrison Dillard, one of Douglas’ Olympic teammates, who won four track-and-field Gold medals—two at the ’48 London Games and two at Helsinki in 1952. Dillard also has the distinction of being the only Olympian in history to win the 100- and 110-meter hurdles.

Alonzo Webb, the University’s head track and field coach, is also on the panel. A Pittsburgh native, Webb was a standout college track -and-field athlete. As Pitt coach, he has garnered three Big East Conference titles. Throughout his tenure at Pitt, he has sent student-athletes to the NCAA championships and has produced 10 NCAA All-Americans, 44 NCAA qualifiers, 30 ECAC/IC4A champions, 35 Big East champions, and 76 all-conference honorees.

Pittsburgh journalist Andrew Stockey, WTAE-TV’s news anchor and sports director, will moderate the panel discussion.

Douglas is executive producer of the 22-minute film. In 1936, he was a 14-year-old who enjoyed football, basketball, gymnastics, and track when he read about the Olympic teammates—the great Jesse Owens, Archie Williams, and the University of Pittsburgh’s John Woodruff—in The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most widely influential African American newspapers in the country at the time. When the 1936 Games were finished, nine African American track athletes had collected 13 medals—four of them by Owens.

Their achievements inspired Douglas. In 1945, he became the first African American (along with Jimmy Joe Robinson and Allen Carter) to play football at Pitt. By 1948, he made the Olympic team, traveled to London, and brought home the Bronze medal in the long jump. He developed an abiding friendship with Owens, and later founded the Jesse Owens Trophy and the Jesse Owens Global Award for Peace.

But the epic performances in Berlin inspired a nation, too. It gave African Americans a beacon of idols during a time of segregation and a belief that they could compete at the highest levels of international competition and across all spectrums of society.

According to Douglas, what happened on the track set in motion breakthroughs such as President Truman’s integration of the military after World War II; Jackie Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color barrier, with other major sports soon to follow; and the opening of doors to Black Americans in once-segregated business and professional opportunities.

In the film’s opening introduction, Gabby Douglas, gymnastics star of the London Games in 2012 (and no relation to Herb Douglas), tells viewers that the renaissance continues to resonate with her generation: “It’s upon the broad shoulders of these courageous pioneers that we all stand.”

The documentary is coproduced and directed by Bob Lott, president of Teamwork Video, and will be presented at other college campuses across the nation as part of an educational tour.