John Woodruff might not have the name notability of his U.S. Men’s Track teammate Jesse Owens, but his contribution to the 1936 Summer Olympics gold medal haul is significant. On this day in 1936, Woodruff became the first African-American to win gold in improbable fashion during the hotly contested Berlin games.
Woodruff, then a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh, was a gifted runner but largely inexperienced in the game of international middle-distance running. In the face of German chancellor Adolf Hitler’s arrogant racism, Woodruff still entered the 800m event as the favorite.
But during the race, Woodruff was boxed in by other racers and knew he had little chance of breaking free without fouling a runner and getting disqualified. Woodruff did the unthinkable and stopped to let other runners pass him by and began his race. In dramatic fashion, Woodruff would walk down the rest of the pack and take home the gold in the event, shocking the arena and the world.
At 6-foot-3, the 21-year-old Alpha man aptly nicknamed “Long John” completed his studies at Pitt in 1939 with a degree in sociology. After attending New York University for his master’s in sociology and then enlisting in the Army to fight in World War II in 1941, he never ran at the international level again.
Military life called Woodruff again during the Korean War and he left the Army for good in 1957 as a lieutenant colonel. In his later years, Woodruff worked as a sociologist, teacher, track coach and in other fields before retiring to Arizona in the 1990s. Interviews with Woodruff have been scarce, but he has shared in talks that he was proud of his time on the track and his time served.
Woodruff passed at the age of 92 at his Arizona retirement home.
PHOTO: Public Domain
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Little Known Black History Fact: John Woodruff was originally published on blackamericaweb.com
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