Turn the clock back to 1936: Adolf Hitler has seized the opportunity of the Berlin Summer Olympics to propagate his belief in Aryan supremacy and his hatred of Jews and African-Americans. He even tried to have Jewish and black athletes banned from the games.
For many Americans, it was the first time they had seen politics cross into the international athletic competition. Now it is the subject of "Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936," an exhibit that continues through Feb. 28 at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Downtown.
The exhibit, created in collaboration with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, explores the ways in which black and Jewish athletes challenged Hitler's racist theories. It also explores the question of whether a boycott of the Olympic Games would have been an effective way to oppose Nazi tyranny.
"One of the things the exhibit touches on is the question regarding if it would have been hypocritical to have boycotted the games at the time, given what was going on in the United States [after] slavery. What Hitler was trying to implement in Germany didn't look that different from what was going on in the American South," said Joy Braunstein, Holocaust Center director.
Although there was talk of boycotting the games that year, most African-American athletes were opposed to the idea. They thought winning would be the most effective way to prove Hitler's Aryan supremacy claim false.
Pictures and newspaper clippings within the exhibit focus on the success of various African-American and Jewish athletes during the games. Despite their medals, many athletes returned to an America still marred by ethnic and racial tensions.
One example was University of Pittsburgh student John Woodruff, who won a gold medal in the 800 meters but faced further discrimination after he came home. Despite his Olympic fame, Mr. Woodruff was not allowed to travel with his Pitt teammates to compete in meets in the South. Several years ago, university chancellor Mark Nordenberg issued a posthumous apology to the Connellsville native, who died in October 2007.
"I think that it was important that this exhibit come to Pittsburgh. ... Pittsburgh is a uniquely sports-centric city and we realized there was an opportunity to have this conversation through sports in a way that couldn't otherwise reach the average person on the street," Ms. Braunstein said.
Cecile Shellman, director of exhibitions at the August Wilson Center, agreed.
"With Pittsburgh being such a segregated community -- topographically and racially divided in so many ways -- having the exhibition here and partnering with the Holocaust Center shows the bridge between the two communities," she said.
Jasper Kauth, 19, a Holocaust Center volunteer from Germany, said it was important that more people learn about the Holocaust because it is not adequately covered in many public schools.
"I think everybody should know about the Holocaust, and the exhibit is so stunning. Through it you can learn a lot about our world in general, not just about German history or Jewish history," he said.
"It's not just about Holocaust education," Ms. Shellman said. "It's also important for people to learn how to live and work well with others."
The exhibit is accompanied by several town hall meetings regarding the politics of race in athletics. The next one will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Wilson Center, 980 Liberty Ave., discussing early 20th-century collaborations within the African-American community. All town halls are free and open to the public. Information: www.augustwilsoncenter.org or 412-258-2700.
Correction/Clarification: posted Feb. 19, 2013: In an earlier version, the hometown of Woodruff was given incorrectly.
Noel Um: email@example.com. First Published February 19, 2013 5:00 AM