By James Marten
It was June 30, 1934, and a sprinter named Ralph Metcalfe would make history at Marquette Stadium, where the national American Athletic Union championships were being run. Not only would the Marquette student athlete become the first person since the 1890s to win two AAU events three years in a row (in his case the 100 and 200 meter races), on this mid-summer day he would also nip the soon-to-be legend Jesse Owens in the 100. His time of 10.4 seconds nearly tied the world record, a feat he would manage three times during the next year, leading “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” to label him “World’s Fastest Human.”
Metcalfe’s fame—he had already won a silver and a bronze at the 1932 Olympics—would be eclipsed by Owens, a track and field hero at Ohio State who would go on to international fame by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Adolf Hitler’s Berlin. Metcalfe also ran in the games, winning a silver in the 100 (just behind Owens) and a gold as a member of the 400-meter relay (with Owens).
As Owens carved out immortality as one of the world’s greatest athletes, Metcalfe earned his degree, coached track at Xavier University, served in the military during World War II, and became director of Chicago’s Department of Civil Rights. He began more than two decades in politics when he won election to the Chicago City Council in 1955; in 1970 he successfully ran for Congress, where he helped organize the Congressional Black Caucus. He died suddenly in 1978, and is remembered in Chicago as the namesake of the Federal Building.
His memory also survives at Marquette, most notably in a lecture series that bears his name. Each year three or four “prominent faculty, scholars and professionals of diverse backgrounds” (according to Marquette’s website) visit campus as holders of the Ralph H. Metcalfe, Sr., Chair, delivering public lectures, speaking to classes, and meeting with graduate and undergraduate students. The history department has sponsored a number of Metcalfe Chairs over the years; most recently, in February 2014, Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, gave a lecture titled, “Guilty Until Statistically Proven Innocent: How Data Destroyed the Promise of Civil Rights.” Two years earlier, Richard Blackett, Andrew Jackson Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, presented “Taking Leave: Fugitive Slaves and the Politics of Freedom, 1850-1860,” as part of the department’s “Freedom Project,” commemorating the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War.
Owens’s feats on the track and in Berlin are featured in the movie “Race,” opening on Friday, February 19 (http://www.focusfeatures.com/race). Despite their close association during their years as track stars and their life-long friendship, Metcalfe is not a major character; a relatively unknown actor named Dondre Octave will play Metcalfe in the movie. The trailer features a couple of scenes that include Metcalfe: the climatic 100 meter race and the young men’s appearance on the medal stand.
But Ralph Metcalfe’s legacy transcends his reputation as one of Marquette’s most accomplished athletes. As a politician, a civil rights advocate, and a representative of and inspiration to his city, his community, and his university, Metcalfe’s work and name live on.
James Marten is professor and chair of the department of history.
The February 16 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel featured a long story (http://www.jsonline.com/greensheet/ralph-metcalfe-beats-jesse-owens-at-marquette–in-1934-b99669717z1-369048961.html) about of Metcalfe and Owens as well as a photo gallery (http://www.jsonline.com/multimedia/photos/the-rivalry-of-ralph-metcalfe-and-jesse-owens-b99671742z1-369049991.html).