Once the team returned to America, New York City hosted a ticker-tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes. Jesse Owens rode solo sitting atop a convertible.
Cleveland later hosted its own parade for Owens, as Connellsville did for Woodruff.
An estimated 10,000 showed up for the special day in Fayette County, which Woodruff shared with surviving members of the high school class of 1886. He rode in an open convertible with his father, along with his track coach from Connellsville and Pitt.
“Woodruff Given Great Welcome,” the banner headline across the Connellsville paper read the following day.
“I’m the proudest father in town, and I feel I’ve got the best boy in the world,” The Daily Courier quoted Silas Woodruff saying afterward. “That is a blessing God has given me.”
The accomplishments of Woodruff and other African Americans on the 1936 team proved without a doubt that Blacks could compete, Douglas said. Their performances helped others get opportunities — even if the opportunities for those Olympians weren’t what they had hoped when they returned home.
The gold medal won by University of Pittsburgh track star John Woodruff at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. The medal is on display at the Hillman Library. (Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review)
“Opportunities were very nil. That was Jim Crow times,” said Douglas, who after his track days ended became a corporate leader. “I was born 59 years after slavery, so I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Jesse Owens struggled to get a good job. Many of his early opportunities to make money came as sideshow gigs pitting “the fastest man alive” in races against horses, cars, motorcycles and trains — even a dog.
Though he won a silver medal in Berlin, Mack Robinson returned to California and took a job sweeping the streets of Pasadena — sometimes while wearing his USA Olympic jacket.
“You don’t get Jackie Robinson’s fight for Civil Rights without Mack Robinson,” said Lou Moore, an author and professor of African American and sports history at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. “Having to see his brother as a street sweeper wearing his Olympic jersey, that set this fire in Jackie that never went out.”
Reality soon returned to Woodruff and others, despite their medal take.
“It doesn’t matter whether you are born in Oakland in Pittsburgh or Oakland, Calif., or in the Mississippi Delta, segregation still existed,” said Sam Black. “Coming back from Berlin with a gold medal and No. 1 ranking in the world hardly mattered.
“Would he face the same type of discrimination as your average African American? The answer is yes.”
No matter how fast Woodruff ran, Jim Crow filled his shadow.
In 1937, African Americans were barred from a race at the U.S. Naval Academy because of state segregation laws in Maryland. New York University pulled out of the meet rather than leave Jimmy Herbert behind. Pitt went — without Woodruff.
“Here I am, an Olympic champion,” he said. “Left behind, because of racial discrimination.”
That same year, Woodruff set an 800-meter world record — 1 minute, 48.8 seconds — at the Pan American Olympics meet in Dallas. Officials later rescinded the record, saying the track was six feet short.
When he graduated in 1939, Woodruff said he was left off a Pitt walk of fame.
“I didn’t make it, in spite of the gold medal that I’d won and bringing the school international recognition,” Woodruff said. “So that let me know just what the situation was. Things hadn’t changed.”
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