Celebrating Black History Month: William DeHart Hubbard

Feb. 1, 2010

If not for a newspaper subscription contest, William DeHart Hubbard may never have been a Wolverine. He broke records right out of the gate and jumped so far they had to lengthen Ferry Field's long jump pit. In his junior year, he won Olympic gold in Paris to become the first African-American to accomplish the feat.

Author John Behee chronicles DeHart Hubbard's amazing tale in this excerpt from Hail to the Victors.

• The full text of "Hail to the Victors" is available through the grad Library as part of the Google Project.


How good must a black athlete be to make the track team of a major university prior to World War II? "Superspade" and "supernigger" were the terms used by Muhammed Ali to capture the essence of what was expected of blacks. They had to be sensational. This was certainly true at Michigan where the feats of the first five black lettermen in track, DeHart Hubbard, Eddie Tolan, Booker Brooks, Willis Ward, and Bill Watson, were nearly incredible.

The 1913 and 1915 Michigan track teams had one secondary letter winner, a recognition also accorded Walter Wickliffe, a high jumper on the 1916 squad, but the first varsity letterman in track was William DeHart Hubbard, - a sprinter, hurdler, and long jumper on the 1923, '24; and '25 teams. He came to Michigan through a newspaper subscription contest and the ingenuity of a Michigan alumnus.

Hubbard was long jumping just inches short of the world's record and running the 100-yard dash under ten seconds at Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. A Michigan alumnus, Lon Barringer, made it his business to become fully aware of Hubbard's athletic and academic records, even though he was living in Charleston, West Virginia.

I asked Hubbard how Barringer would know about Cincinnati athletics. "Reading the Cincinnati newspapers," said Hubbard. "It was not unusual for a West Virginia businessman to be reading a major newspaper from a bordering state"' When Barringer learned that Hubbard had a solid four-year academic average of 90, he was determined to land this great athlete for Michigan.

A check had to be made with his good friend and fellow West Virginian, Fielding H. Yost. This iron-willed football coach had, since 1901, prevented black athletes from playing football for Michigan. Now, in 1921, he had just been appointed Director of Athletics, and Barringer wanted to know if he would approve a black athlete on Michigan's track team. Yost was willing to approve almost anything to enhance the athletic glory of Michigan, especially since a few universities were already using blacks to win in track and field, and he could not stand to see them surpass Michigan. The alumni could not object too strongly to one black, not when it looked like Hubbard would be a world-beater. Yost enthusiastically endorsed the idea and told Barringer to go ahead.

Barringer indeed had a plan:

The Cincinnati Enquirer was running a subscription contest. The ten high-schoolers in the area who could enlist the greatest number of new subscriptions would be awarded $3,000 college scholarships to attend the school of their choice. Today that would defray the cost of one or perhaps two years of college, but in 1921 it was a fabulous four-year award. Barringer interested Hubbard in the contest and vowed that if he'd attend Michigan every effort would be made to help him win.

Nearly every Michigan alumnus in the United States got a letter from Barringer on the subject. Many subscribed. Branch Rickey, then owner of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, did. Alumni from coast to coast did. The University of Michigan Library did. Many people in Ann Arbor and Detroit did, to say nothing of the Cincinnati boosters. In September, 1921, William DeHart Hubbard, contest winner, enrolled at Michigan.

It would seem that an athlete with this combination of superb athletic talent and good scholarship should have been besieged by alumni and coaches of numerous colleges. Such was not the case. Michigan faced little opposition.

"It wasn't very fashionable for blacks to attend college," explained DeHart. "Very few of my boyhood playmates and high school chums went past high school. I was the only black on the Michigan track team those four years, and rarely competed against others, even in national meets. In the Big Ten, Iowa and Michigan State had a few in either football or track. Only four of us made the 1924 Olympic team. My, how times have changed. Today you have to be a world champion to get attention, but when I competed that wasn't true. If you were black and on a college team you got a lot of publicity." In Hubbard's senior year only eight of 1,456 students graduating from Michigan were black.

Immediately living up to advance billing, Hubbard tied the University indoor 50-yard dash record and long jumped 24' 6 3/4" in freshman competition. Edward Gourdin of Harvard held the world record of 25' 3". Because freshmen were ineligible for varsity meets, the only opportunity to test his mettle against the "big boys" came in the national AAU meet in Newark, New Jersey. Both Gourdin and Sol Butler, two of the best in the country, were there.

By winning the junior long jump (24' 31/2') on Friday, Hubbard qualified for senior competition and a shot at Gourdin and Butler the following day. Leaping 24' 51/2", he took the senior title and then made it a double victory with 48' 11/2" in the hop, step, and jump. Spaulding's Guide named him to its all-American track team of 1922 as the most outstanding American in those two jumping events. Soon the long jump pit at Michigan's Ferry Field would not hold Hubbard. It was extended two feet from its former 25' length and widened considerably.

Sophomore Hubbard set Big Ten marks in the 50-yard dash and the long jump. His 25' 11/2" was a bare 11/~" short of Gourdin's world record, but his greatest triumphs were yet to come.

A brilliant junior year brought Big Ten crowns in the 100-yard dash (9.8 seconds) and the long jump 24' 10 3/4", and an opportunity to make the U.S. Olympic team. The Midwest sectionals were held at Ferry Field. DeHart took the long jump and was beaten in the 100-meters, finishing second. It was on to Harvard University to determine the U.S. team. Wolverine track coach Steve Farrell said, "Forget the 100-meters and concentrate on winning the long jump. If you spread yourself too thin you might not win anything." The advice was well-taken. Gourdin was again beaten, and the Michigan junior became the United States' best hope for a medal in the long jump.

The boat ride to Paris afforded Hubbard a lot of time for contemplation. He, Earl Johnson, Ned Gourdin, and Charley West saw themselves as representatives of the black people of America. They hoped their performance might inspire black youth to achieve similar goals and build racial pride.

The many acquaintances, the awesome Atlantic, the glamour of Paris, and the aura of the Eighth Modern Olympiad made profound impressions on the 19-year old youngster from Cincinnati. But for Hubbard, none of these could rival the excitement of winning a gold medal. His chances were almost erased on his first jump. As he hit the take-off board at top speed his front spikes touched the ground, just beyond the board, for a foul. That was bad enough, but his heel was severely bruised when it hit the sharp back edge of the board, exposed by countless practice jumps.

Contestants were given three preliminary trials, and those with the better marks received three final trials. On his second jump, the high stakes making it easier to ignore the super-sensitive heel, Hubbard reached far enough out to make the finals. Later, still trailing in the competition he started down the runway on his sixth and final jump. In stride and gaining speed, he hit the take-off board well and landed 24' 5-1/2" down the continent, beyond the field of challengers, and into the international limelight. In that moment William DeHart Hubbard became the first black American to win a gold medal in an individual Olympic event, and etched his name on the honor roll of Michigan's greatest athletes of all time. Interestingly, Hubbard's mark was not the best jump in the 1924 Olympics. In the pentathlon Bob Lengendre of Georgetown astonished everyone with a jump of 25' 6-3/16", breaking Gourdin's world record.

With the distraction of all the fanfare accompanying his return, a mediocre senior year would have come as no great surprise. Instead, Hubbard flashed to victory in the sprints, hurdles, and long jump, leading the 1925 Maize and Blue to Big Ten titles in both the indoor and outdoor meets. During the course of the season he tied the world's record in the 100-yard dash (9.6 seconds) against Ohio State at Ferry Field, but he remembers most the 9.7 that won the Conference outdoor title:

"I get mad every time I think of that. It could have been 9.4 or 9.5. I got off to a perfect start. Everything was perfect. About 70 yards down the track there was nobody near me - I couldn't even hear them. Normally you can hear them. So I said, 'Well, you'd better slow down and save yourself for the finals.' John McKue, the AAU's official starter, was working this meet. When I went back to the starting line to collect my sweats he said, 'Turn around and let me kick your behind. You should have gone on running and broken the world record. I would have certified it.' I said, 'I'll get it the next trip John.' In the finals I ran hard all the way - really going all out for the record - and came up with another 9.7 seconds."

The world record most coveted by Hubbard, the long jump, had been within reach even as a senior in high school. On ten occasions as a collegian he surpassed 25 feet. It seemed only a matter of time before it would fall. But for four years, like the carrot just beyond the rabbit's reach, it constantly tantalized him. When Legendre broke it in Paris he was doubly disappointed. He had unconsciously come to regard it as his property. Just a little more hard work. A little luck. But he never seemed able to put it all together. Now he was down to his last chance, the NCAA championship at Chicago's Stagg Field, June 12-13, 1925.

Hubbard "warmed up" by winning the 100-yards in 9.8, equaling the NCAA record despite a rain-soaked track. It was to be his day. The practice, the patience, the longing were to be rewarded. Accelerating down the runway for the very last time in his collegiate career, he exploded a leap of 25' 10 3/8". Legendre's 25' 6 3/16" "carrot" was in William DeHart Hubbard's hip pocket. He had become the greatest long jumper in the world.

Reference: Behee, John Richard, Hail to the Victors, Ann Arbor, Mich.: distributed by Ulrich's Books [1974].

U-M Celebrates Black History Month