In Herb Douglas’ hometown of Pittsburgh, in the Hazelwood section, there’s a mural – painted in a dotted pattern – on 2nd Avenue, of him leaping at the 1948 Olympic Games in London. The Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center currently showcases Douglas’ original track suit from the games, and the shoes that helped spring him to a bronze medal in the long jump.
Douglas’ achievements during his nine-decade ascension are vast, and vary from sports to corporate influence, a career filled with firsts, and mentorship immeasurable in the tangible form. At 95, he is the oldest living African-American Olympic medalist. Yet, for all his achievements, from Douglas’ viewpoint, his father, Herbert Sr., “was the most incredible [one] in the Douglas clan.”
The elder Douglas went blind after suffering a heart attack at age 41 (the same day of his daughter, Barbara’s birth). But he persevered and went on to run up to three parking garage businesses with his trusted pets and son, Douglas Jr. He became the first African-American to obtain a Seeing Eye dog from Seeing Eye Inc. In 1967, EBONY featured him in an article titled “Pittsburgh’s ’Seeing Eye’ Dog Pioneer.
“Of the 30 years he was in business, 24 of those years he was sightless and he did a remarkable job,” recalled Douglas. “Dad and mom [still] went on and raised my sister and me through the years.” By the time of the article, the younger Douglas an Olympic medalist, already accomplished in his own right, having transitioned smoothly from sports to sales at Schieffelin & Co. (now Moët Hennessy USA). But he still credited his father for his success.
“My dad taught me the four principles of life,” Douglas says, “and in doing so, I was able to transcend my habits. He taught me to analyze, organize, initiate, and follow through.”
Like many kids, Douglas hung a poster of his idols in his bedroom on the wall above where he laid his head each night. In the middle of the image: President Abraham Lincoln. On one side of him: Jesse Owens, and on the other: Joe Louis. Douglas says, that in the 1930’s, “they were our symbols of freedom.”
Though his father favored baseball, Douglas excelled in other youth sports, like basketball, gymnastics, and track and field. Growing up, he managed to win city and state championships, while working at his father’s [garage] business. A chance encounter in 1936 brought Jesse Owens to Pittsburgh as he campaigned for a local politician. Douglas jumped at the chance to meet his idol and attended the rally with his mother.
“When I met Jesse Owens, I told him I was a 100-yard champion, and a broad jump champion, and through his teeth he lied and said ‘you did better than I did,’ and we became friends,” Douglas recalls. “I was 14 years old at the time.”
Douglas remembers how much of an inspiration Owens was to him, Harrison Dillard, Mal Whitfield and “those who followed,” he says, “because he won four gold medals in the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games!”
Although Jim Crow laws forbade many interracial competitions, Douglas’ passion for sports, led him to integrating his Taylor Allderdice High School basketball team, and earning an athletic scholarship to Xavier University of Louisiana. While at Xavier, Douglas was part of the ‘440 relay team which won a national title in 1942 – the first HBCU to do so.
Because of his father’s condition, Douglas was able to avoid the draft during World War II. He left campus and helped his father’s business. After the war, in 1945, Douglas was recruited again to play Division 1 athletics – this time, in his hometown, at the University of Pittsburgh. While at Pitt, Douglas won a total of five intercollegiate championships: four in the 100 yard dash event, and one in the long jump. He would also join Jimmy Joe Robinson, and Allen Carter as the first Black men ever to play for Pitt’s football team.
Soon after, at the age of 26, Douglas found himself beneath the lights, under the flag poles, standing on the third place pedestal of the podium, in front of a crowd of thousands at the Olympic Games in London’s Wembley stadium. He had just jumped 7.54 meters, and while it wasn’t a personal best, it was enough to win a bronze medal.
“When you see your flag go up, you watch that and you don’t watch anything else,” Douglas remembers the moment. “It’s an experience of elation, accomplishment mainly and you then know you represented your country and you’re one of the best in the world.
“What’s interesting is, I won those junior championships, high school championships, national championships and even won an Olympic medal, my Mom, my Dad never said ‘you did great.’ They never mentioned they were proud of me as an Olympian or anything – it was just supposed to happen, I guess. I never could figure it out, and it didn’t bother me because I know that my mother would tell everyone in the world that her son was an Olympic medalist and my Dad would do the same. I kept on going, I transcended.”
Some fifty years after Douglas was named Vice-President at Schieffelin & Co., he still remembers the trailblazers who came before him. “Jackie Robinson was the first [VP of a national company], followed by Joe Black” he explains, “then Harvey C. Russell at Pepsi Cola in 1963. Chuck Williams, who was Jackie Robinson’s brother-in-law, was fourth, and I was fifth at Schieffelin & Co. We were able to move forward.”
“More than anything, I wanted to be a coach,” Douglas says. “But Pittsburgh was not employing in the public school system African –Americans to be coaches. As a result, I went into corporate. The corporate community was a blessing in disguise.”
By exerting the same effort and energy that he put into sports, Douglas was able to become a skilled salesman in the adult beverage industry. Throughout the 50s and 60s, very few distributers had African-American salespeople. Douglas interacted with the ones that existed, though. After a stint at Pabst Brewing Co., Douglas began working with Schieffelin, which distributed Hennessy Cognac, where he would bolster the brand’s spirit sales immensely.
By then, ads for Hennessy were being run in EBONY and JET – reaching Black consumers nationwide. The company had already committed itself to some social justice initiatives too, sponsoring the Tuskegee Institute and the NAACP in 1909. Douglas knew that by “ingratiating himself with trendsetters” and leaders from the Urban League, the NAACP, and the Masonic Order, he could increase profits. And he did, “We [African-Americans] were doing 40% of the total business,” Douglas recalls, “And today, disproportionately, it’s much higher and still on the rise.
“I was able to lay a foundation,” Douglas continues, “and by laying a foundation, I was also able to bring other African-Americans in. When I retired in 1987, I left three African-American VPs with our company.”
Douglas is delighted that he was able to open doors for others; however, he speaks most fondly when discussing how he established the International Athletic Association (IAA) in honor of his mentor Jesse Owens.
In 1971, the two traveled throughout the country, promoting the Schieffelin & Co. sponsored film, ‘The Black Athlete.’ Owens was the narrator and still a big draw, especially in the African-American community. A trip to Indianapolis, where the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) was founded, would alter the course of both Owens’ and Douglas’ legacy. A conversation with Owens about the James E. Sullivan Award – the AAU’s most prestigious prize presented to the nation’s best amateur athlete, would hearten Douglas, years later, to find a way to honor his hero.
When Douglas and Owens encountered a hallway filled with previous Sullivan Award winners Owens told his protégé: “Herb, this is the one thing that hurt me, that I did not win this award,” Douglas recalls. “When he passed, I knew it was my duty to start this award.”
Since co-founding the IAA with Owens’ wife Ruth and establishing the Jesse Owens Global Peace award and the Jesse Owens International Trophy, Douglas has honored dignitaries such as former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, South African human rights icon Nelson Mandela, former president George H.W. Bush, and media mogul Ted Turner. “All of them had a wonderful background in sports but did something indelible for peace significantly,” Douglas says. “That award eclipsed the athlete award when we started it.”
This year, tennis icon Serena Williams and boxing legend Muhammad Ali have been named the recipients of the awards. Douglas is now the honorary chairman of the organization he started in 1981, and seems content with his life’s work. His voice is brittle, and he seems to have slowed down, but when he tells you, he can jump as long as you can these days, you just might believe him.
The 2017 Jesse Owens International Athlete Trophy Gala will take place on April 27th at the Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City.
Editor’s Note: In an earlier version of this story, the name Schieffelin & Co., had been changed due to information mistakenly provided to EBONY. The correct spelling of the name has been restored.