For Black History Month this year, Near west Side partners would like to highlight historical moments that transpired right here in our very own neighborhood. These moments in time helped shape the society that we live in today, and were key to advancements for the civil rights of African-Americans in this country. Today we will focus on Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, and their connection with Marquette University.
Born in Oakville, Alabama on September 13, 1913, Jesse Owens is perhaps most known for his incredulous feats in Track and Field events. Specializing in sprints and long jump, Owens won 4 gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games held in Nazi Germany. Crushing Hitler’s myth of Aryan Supremacy in the process. Owens is now known as one of the greatest athletes in his sport, not just for his accolades on the track, but for breaking barriers at one of the most televised events. However, before his name was known throughout the world, Owens was an up and coming amateur track athlete competing at the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) National Championships at Marquette Stadium.
Adjacent to Merrill Park near 38th and St. Paul, Quad Park is a lush football field with a track around it, perfect for anyone in the Near West Side who wants to do a bit of exercise. In the 1930s however, it was the site of Marquette Stadium, a football and track venue owned by Marquette University. On June 30, 1934 the stadium hosted Owens and the AAU National Championships. However, the star of the day would be Marquette’s Ralph Metcalfe who won the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints that day, just barely eding past Owens in the 100-meter. Though they were on good terms off the track, Owens and Metcalfe were fierce rivals on the track. Both Matcalfe and Owens would go on to be named to the 1936 Olympic team and won gold together in the 400-meter relay, one of the four gold medals Owens would win at the games.
To hear more about these phenoms and their race at Marquette Stadium click the link below:
While Metcalfe is perhaps less known than Owens, he also was a key figure in the advancement of African-Americans in this country. Of his time at Marquette current Director of Track and Field of Marquette University Bert Rogers stated that Metcalfe was an “influential figure on campus”. Rogers explained how by his senior year at Marquette Metcalfe had been elected class president by his peers, an extraordinary feat considering the times. Graduating as team captain, class president, and cum laude Metcalfe was a shining example of what the ideal student athlete was capable of. His legacy at Marquette still shines today, with the Ralph Metcalfe Senior Athletic Awards being given to the most outstanding Senior Athletes at Marquette annually.
To hear Rogers speak more on Metcalfe’s impact at Marquette click the link below:
After his track Career Metcalfe earned a master’s degree in Political Science at the University of Southern California, before serving in the Army during WWII. After the war, Metcalfe entered the political sphere in Chicago where he was a fierce advocate for civil rights. He eventually made his way to congress in 1970, and was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Owens and Metcalfe will forever be synonymous with their athletic achievements at those 1936 Olympic games. Their most important achievements in life however may have been off the track, but their legacy will always be entwined together on that June 30th day in the Near West Side.