U.S. gold-medal winner Jesse Owens stands on the podium next to German silver medalist Lutz Long at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Afterward, Mr. Owens and Mr. Long walked arm in arm around the playing field.
By Andrea T. Mahone
This year marks the 90th anniversary of Black History Month. Started in 1926 by Harvard Ph.D. Carter G. Woodson as Negro History Week, it was expanded to Black History Month in 1976.
This year also marks the 80th anniversary of the world-changing 1936 Olympics in Berlin, driven by the performance of nine black American athletes, led by Jesse Owens, winner of four gold medals. The story of Mr. Owens’ life and that of the other black 1936 track-and-field Olympians will be chronicled in the film “The Renaissance Period of the African American in Sports — 1936 Berlin Olympic Games,” which will be released this summer. The film will be narrated by sports correspondent Bob Costas, and one of its co-executive producers is Herb Douglas, a 1948 bronze medalist and University of Pittsburgh graduate.
The United States won 24 gold medals in Berlin. Ten African-American Olympians won medals, nine in track and field and one in bantam-weight boxing. Eight gold medals were won by five of the nine track and field black athletes. Of the nine, five won gold medals, three won silver and two won bronze. Their stellar performance conspicuously demonstrated to the world that, contrary to Nazi doctrine, black athletes could compete and win anywhere — even in Adolf Hitler’s capital.
Two of the black 1936 Olympians were natives of Pittsburgh: John Woodruff, a University of Pittsburgh graduate and 800-meter gold medalist; and John Terry, a member of the U.S. weightlifting team, who did not medal.
John Terry and I have a connection. Born in Pittsburgh in December 1908, Mr. Terry left Pittsburgh to do weight training in Harlem with trainer/coach Charles Alfred Ramsey, who prepared him for the Olympics. Mr. Ramsey is my maternal great-grandfather. He was a lifetime student of what was then called “physical culture” and was a recognized expert on nutrition, exercise and physical development.
Mr. Ramsey became a champion wrestler but professionally worked as a banker for First National City Bank of New York, which later became Citibank. He married my great-grandmother, Florence Elizabeth Richardson, in Trinidad, West Indies, where he lived and worked in the early 1900s. She was black; he was white. His work for the bank took him to Cuba and, eventually, the bank called him back to New York City.
Throughout his travels, Mr. Ramsey pursued his “physical culture” avocation. After returning to New York, he opened a storefront facility to train body builders and weightlifters, welcoming John Terry and other black athletes customarily barred from white-owned facilities. He became known as the trainer of the best “colored” wrestlers of his time. Randall J. Strossen, the author of “Super Squats: How to Gain 30 Pounds of Muscle in 6 Weeks,” wrote in a footnote that renowned “strongman” J.C. Hise had once called Mr. Ramsey “doubtless the greatest individual trainer of the present age.”
Throughout my childhood, my maternal grandmother, her sisters and my mother told me fascinating stories of my great-grandfather, who died in 1954 when I was 3 years old. Recently, I inherited a precious family heirloom, a signed souvenir book from the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Tattered and worn, the book is inscribed to my great-grandfather: “Presented to C.A. Ramsey by John Terry member of the American Weightlifting Team XI Olympiad Berlin 1936 in appreciation of your efforts as my coach and helper in the iron game. J.F.T.” Inside the book are the signatures of Jesse Owens, Cornelius Johnson and John Woodruff — all black Olympic gold medalists. A fascinating connection, indeed.
As members of my family celebrate Black History Month, we are immensely proud that Charles Alfred Ramsey had the uncommon courage, intellect, compassion and vision to do what he did at a time when it was not easy to do.
Andrea T. Mahone, a native New Yorker and retired pre-school teacher, has lived in Pittsburgh since 1973. She has served on national and local nonprofit boards, including those of the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Heinz History Center, and she currently co-chairs the history center’s African American AdvisoryCommittee.
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