Tuesday, August 2, 2016

V.1. #39 Before Jesse Owens There Was DeHart Hubbard

Before Jesse Owens shattered Hitler’s concept of a superior race, there was William DeHart Hubbard. DeHart arrived in Cincinnati on November 25, 1903. He died on June 23, 1976. Hubbard, a Walnut Hills High School graduate, was the first black American to win an Olympic track and field gold medal in an individual event. Although talented in a variety of events, he competed only in the long jump (or the broad jump as it was known then) at the 1924 Paris Olympics.

For all that he has achieved, DeHart is perhaps, to a point, the forgotten or invisible man.  Even though, when the Millennium arrived, and the Cincinnati Enquirer selected him as the area’s best athlete for the entire 20th century, we have few concrete objects available to remind us of him.  A Hubbard Street or Stadium has yet to be constructed. Now there is a playground with his name and, although I haven’t visited or seen it, apparently a bas-relief sculpture depicting his Olympic leap exists on the tile wall of the Riverfront Transit Center, which links Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park.  However, when you finish reading this story, I’ll let you decide whether or not he truly has been the forgotten man.

When I began coaching track and field at Walnut Hills High School in the 1970s, I wanted to establish a board listing all the school records. This would give the squad members a sense of the school’s history and a goal to strive for if they were inclined to join that group.  Little evidence of best performances existed. As I went about my search, not once did the name DeHart Hubbard, who I had never heard of, appear, despite his having broken ten seconds for the 100-yard dash and jumping within inches of the long jump world record.  Perhaps his obscurity is partially due to the Cincinnati Board of Education’s 1920s’ policy of not sending athletes to the State Championship Meet.  Fortunately, his alma mater now recognizes him by holding the annual DeHart Hubbard High School Invitational in May. 

He grew up in Walnut Hills where he attended both the all-black Douglass School and Stowe School. Hubbard, the oldest of seven children, was named after A.J. DeHart, first principal of Douglass School. 

Upon moving on from junior high, Hubbard then attended the predominantly white Walnut Hills High School. He excelled in the classroom, where he maintained a four-year scholastic average of 90, and in sports. Along with captaining the high school track team, he delivered the Cincinnati Enquirer. The newspaper was running a subscription contest for their news carriers. Ten high schoolers, those able to sign up the most new subscribers, would win a $3000 annual college scholarship to the school of his choice.  An involved Michigan alumnus, Lon Barringer, was aware of Hubbard’s talents. He helped Hubbard win, and as a result, DeHart selected the University of Michigan.

It was unusual for a black athlete to make the track team of a major university during that era. Much was demanded and they had to be sensational.  Hubbard surpassed all hopes.  He immediately lived up to all expectations.  Even though freshmen were ineligible to compete for the varsity, he instantly established himself as a future record breaker. At his home long jump pit on Michigan’s Ferry Field he repeatedly threatened injury to himself by landing on the wood block beyond the sawdust. Since the pit would not contain him, the groundskeepers were forced to extend its length by two feet (beyond its former 25’ length) and widen it considerably in order to protect him. 
Hubbard tied the University's indoor 50-yard dash record and long jumped 24' 6 3/4" in freshman competition. Edward Gourdin of Harvard held the world record of 25' 3". Because freshmen were ineligible for varsity meets, the only opportunity to test his mettle against the "big boys" came in the national AAU meet in Newark, New Jersey. Both Gourdin and Sol Butler, two of the best in the country, were there.

By winning the junior long jump (24' 3 1/2') on Friday, Hubbard qualified for the senior competition and a shot at Gourdin and Butler the following day. Leaping 24' 5 1/2", he took the senior title and then made it a double victory with 48' 1 1/2" in the hop, step, and jump. Spaulding's Guide named him to its All-American track team of 1922 as the most outstanding American in those two jumping events. This was the first of six straight Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) long jump titles.
As a sprinter, hurdler, and jumper (both long and triple) on the varsity's 1923, ’24, and ’25 teams, he excelled. The sophomore Hubbard set Big Ten marks in the 50-yard dash and the long jump and he won the NCAA long jump. He was still just a bit shy of Gourdin's world record. He repeated as the AAU triple jump champion in 1923. However, greater glories beckoned.
In 1924 his brilliant junior year secured Big Ten crowns in the 100-yard dash (9.8 seconds) and the long jump (24' 10 3/4") as well as an opportunity to make the U.S. Olympic team. The Midwest sectionals were held at Ferry Field. DeHart took the long jump and was beaten in the 100-meters, when he finished second. Then it was on to Cambridge and the Harvard University Stadium for the final Olympic Trials. Near the shores of the Charles River the berths on the U.S. team would be self selected. 
Conflicting information exists as to Hubbard’s next move. Some say his track coach suggested that he forget the 100-meters and concentrate on winning the long jump, which was his strongest event. He feared that DeHart, by seeking multiple selections, would miss all of his objectives. 
Ken Blackwell, former Secretary of State in Ohio and Cincinnati politician, is a grandnephew of Hubbard. In an interview he once shared his admiration for his granduncle, but he felt that he didn't compete in all the events for which he qualified, not because he didn't want to, but because he wasn't allowed to. Blackwell claimed that the International Olympic Committee denied Hubbard a fair chance to race in the sprints on account of his dark skin.
The advice to focus on the jump worked out. Edward Gourdin, the world record holder, was again vanquished. The University of Michigan junior clinched his position on the team and became the United States' favorite for a medal in the long jump at the Paris Olympics.  Whatever the reason for choosing just one event, this apparently did not embitter him. 
Here is a copy of the letter that he wrote on ocean liner stationery to his mother shortly before sailing across the Atlantic on the S.S. America. It can be found among the historical collections of the Cincinnati Museum Center. Hubbard felt the urgency to write quickly so he could give the letter to someone to mail. He knew that he was about to chase a goal that unmistakably would be historical.

Moments later the S.S. America steamed from Hoboken, N.J., for France, and according to The Washington Post, "accompanied by blasts of farewell from river craft and the shouts of hundreds."  A lead sports page article the next day announced, " . . . Three hundred and twenty stars . . . lined the decks of the S.S. America as she backed out of her pier."

They would be at sea nine full days. Sporadic dispatches followed. One day The Post headlined: "U.S. Olympic Athletes Train On Shipboard; 3 Stowaways Found." Five days later this appeared: "Olympic Athletes Continue To Drill Despite Heavy Seas; Seasickness Claims Hennigan." It was reported that the boxing coach, "Spike" Webb, "expects to send some of his men down into the engine room to help the stokers of the America so that the boxers will be able to take off some of their surplus weight."
The boat ride to Paris afforded Hubbard a surplus of time for contemplation. He, Earl Johnson, Ned Gourdin, and Charley West saw themselves as representatives of the black people of America. They hoped their performances might inspire African-American youths to achieve similar goals and build racial pride.
In 1948 Hubbard told a writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "I was determined to become the first of my race to be an Olympic champion and I was just as determined to break the world broad jump record." "But the day before I was to jump, Bob LeGendre of Georgetown University established a new world record of 25 feet 6 3/16 inches, breaking Gourdin’s old mark, while competing in the pentathlon. . . . It upset me so much that I didn't sleep all night.
"Then, when I went to the Olympic Stadium in Colombes, I discovered an inconsistency in the takeoff board. Instead of the hollow part of the board being nearest the pit, it was reversed. He never saw the board like that in America.
"On my first jump my chances were almost erased. I came down the runway at top speed and hit the takeoff board. The front spikes touched the ground, just beyond the board, for a foul and my heel was severely bruised, because I was wearing sprinter's shoes, not the more protective kind jumpers usually use, when it hit the sharp back edge of the board, exposed by countless practice jumps." 
Each contestant was allowed three preliminary trials and those with the better marks received three additional attempts. On his second jump of the preliminary round, forgetting the throbbing heel, Hubbard stretched far enough in the sand to qualify for the finals. Four jumps later, trailing in the competition, he stared down the runway before his sixth and final jump. Would his dream vaporize or be realized? He launched into his approach and while gaining speed with each stride and defying the painful heel, his foot collided with the takeoff board without fouling and propelled him 24' 5-1/2" into the pit. This mark exceeded all his challengers. He achieved his first goal.
In that moment William DeHart Hubbard became the first black American to win a gold medal in an individual Olympic event. He was celebrated on his return to America. Cincinnati hosted a parade for him. The University of Michigan hailed him as one of its greatest athletes. There were many distractions and fanfare accompanying his homecoming. It would have been easy to be satisfied with his athletic achievements. A mediocre senior year would have come as no great surprise. 
Instead, Hubbard flashed to victory in the sprints, hurdles, and long jump, leading the 1925 Maize and Blue to Big Ten titles in both the indoor and outdoor meets. During the course of the season he tied the world's record in the 100-yard dash (9.6 seconds) against Ohio State at Ferry Field, but he remembers most the 9.7 that won the Conference outdoor title. Here is how he recalls that race.

"I get mad every time I think of that. It could have been 9.4 or 9.5. I got off to a perfect start. Everything was perfect. About 70 yards down the track there was nobody near me - I couldn't even hear them. Normally you can hear them. So I said, 'Well, you'd better slow down and save yourself for the finals.' John McKue, the AAU's official starter, was working this meet. When I went back to the starting line to collect my sweats he said, 'Turn around and let me kick your behind. You should have gone on running and broken the world record. I would have certified it.' I said, 'I'll get it the next trip, John.' In the finals I ran hard all the way - really going all out for the record - and came up with another 9.7 seconds."
His university career was about to conclude. Here is how a writer described his final collegiate meet, the NCAA Championships. The long jump world record was the goal most coveted by Hubbard. It had been within reach for a long time, even as a senior in high school at Walnut Hills. On ten occasions as a collegian he surpassed 25 feet. It seemed only a matter of time before it would fall. But for four years, like the carrot just beyond the rabbit's reach, it constantly tantalized him. When Legendre broke it in Paris, he was doubly disappointed. He had unconsciously come to regard it as his property. His attitude was, “I need just a little more hard work, a little luck.” But he never seemed able to put it all together. Now he was down to his last chance, the final day of the collegiate championships at Chicago's Stagg Field, June 13, 1925.
Hubbard "warmed up" by winning the 100-yards in 9.8, equaling the NCAA record despite a rain-soaked track. Maybe this was to be his day. The practice, the patience, the longing – were they to be rewarded?  He found himself in a familiar position.  Just like in the Olympics he stood at the end of the runway for his sixth and final jump.  Just like in the Olympics someone had a mark better than his. Accelerating for the very last time in his collegiate career, he exploded his last jump as a Wolverine, a leap of 25' 10 3/8". Legendre's 25' 6 3/16" "carrot" was in William DeHart Hubbard's hip pocket. He had become history’s greatest long jumper.
Of course, Hubbard had a wonderful athletic career at the University of Michigan.  He won the long jump in six national AAU outdoor meets and scored in another. Add in two triple jump titles. Factor in two NCAA outdoor long jump crowns and one 100 along with six Big Ten championships. His 1925 outdoor long jump  stood as the Michigan Wolverine's team record until 1980, and it still stands second. His 1925 jump of 25 feet 312 inches stood as a Big Ten Championships record until Jesse Owens broke it with what is now the current record of 26 feet 814 inches in 1935.  

This is a collegiate athletic resume seldom equaled. However, how was he as a student?  He had that four-year average of 90 at Walnut Hills High School.  As an African-American attending the University of Michigan and running track, that was a significant achievement by itself. DeHart encountered few African-American conference, national, or Olympic competitors.  The fact was, very few blacks were involved in sport at that level at that time. In Hubbard's senior class, only eight out of the 1,456 graduating students were African-American. As in high school, he excelled in academics. He graduated with honors. 

However, DeHart Hubbard continued competing at the highest level even though his college eligibility had expired. In 1926 he confirmed his ability as a sprinter by equaling the world record of 9.6 seconds for 100 yards, supposedly in a race in Cincinnati.  I have not been able to determine where this took place.

In 1927 he had the best mark of his career when he jumped 26’ 2¼”, becoming the first person to exceed the 26-foot barrier. Unfortunately, the mark was not recognized as a world record, because the takeoff board was one inch higher than the landing pit. In all, Hubbard bettered 25 feet on eleven occasions and was undoubtedly the greatest jumper of the pre-Jesse Owens era.
In 1928 the Games were held in Amsterdam.  He again made the USA Olympic Team.  However, an ankle injury prevented him from successfully defending his title and performing at his best.  His greatest leap during this competition was 23+ feet, well below his capabilities.  Thus ended his track career as he tied for 11th position.  
His experiences as a person of color motivated him to focus on segregation in sports once he moved on from his own competition to the work sector. His prominence enabled him to be a pioneer and effective in the advancement of civil rights.  He took a supervisory position with Cincinnati’s Public Recreation Commission, devoting much of his time to working with inner-city youth. In the 1920s much of the United States, including Cincinnati, was entrenched in Jim Crow policies and practices. He remained in this position until 1941, at which time he accepted a job as the manager of Valley Homes, a public housing project in Cincinnati. In 1942, Hubbard moved to Cleveland to work for the Federal Public Housing Authority as a race relation’s advisor, where he sought to achieve better housing for minorities. 

Hubbard excelled in many sports besides track and field. In 1934 he founded the Cincinnati Tigers, a professional baseball team, which played in the Negro American League. Hubbard had previously presided over the city's preeminent black amateur team, Excelsior. Numerous Excelsior alums turned professional with the Tigers. The Tigers played at Crosley Field, often outdrawing the Reds. They folded after the 1937 season.

Harrison Dillard and Jesse Owens, both lifetime residents of Cleveland and multi-Olympic track and field gold medalists, got to know Hubbard.  When Hubbard died in 1976 at the age of 72 in Cleveland, Dillard wrote in the Cleveland Press: "There are many I'm sure who owe a debt to DeHart Hubbard who have little or no idea who he was. . . . I {am} referring not only to those he helped in so many ways during his career in housing with the government, but to all the black Olympic champions America has produced since DeHart became the first: he came before other great black athletes like Tolan, Owens, Johnson, Williams, Dillard, Whitfield, Stanfield, Calhoun, Rudolph, Boston, Smith, Manning, Tyus, Milburn -- all of us. And as the first of us, he lives on through us."
Then Dillard quoted a poem by Hugh Robert Orr:
"They are not dead who live in lives they leave behind;
"In those whom they have blessed, they live a life again,
"And shall live through the years,
"Eternal life, and grow each day more beautiful
"As time declares their good, forgets the rest, and proves their immortality."
Dillard considered the words as they were read back to him. True as they are, he added: "Very few people are timeless. Jesse was timeless. I'll talk to different kids' groups and they wonder, 'Who on earth is Harrison Dillard?' Even more would have to wonder, 'Who is DeHart Hubbard?' " DeHart was timeless also and very Intelligent. But there was something more about Hubbard. "It was his demeanor," he said. "He was not a boisterous person. There was a sense of the gentleman about him.”
"He never talked about himself and about the Olympics because that would be bragging about what he did," said the Rev. Morris Fleming, a retired Baptist pastor in Cincinnati who knew Hubbard. "There was no big I' or little you' about him. He was just plain Mr. Hubbard.” With regret in his voice, he added, "They never did give him the credit he deserved."
However, to again use the words of the poet quoted by Dillard: "They are not dead who live in lives they leave behind. . . . " 
In the second paragraph of this story I asked whether or not you consider him to be the forgotten man.  Now, what do you think?


  1. DeHart Hubbard is truly underappreciated in Cincinnati. Based on his athletic and academic records coupled with his high character, he was also underemployed. This is the best compilation of Mr. Hubbard I have ever read. I think there should be some tangible recognition of this great Olympian in his hometown of Cincinnati.

  2. A great story that should be in the Enquirer during this Olympic time. Would also be a nice human relations story for the City. Thanks.

  3. I am his great granddaughter, and I thank you for this! "He who lives in lives left behind.." We are working to honor him and would love to talk to you!

    1. I seldom look at these pages anymore. I can be contacted at bobroncker@gmail.com or 513.236.4828 if you still have an interest or need to talk. Bob Roncker