Celebrating Black History Month: Eddie Tolan

Feb. 17, 2010

Eddie Tolan came to Michigan from Detroit's Cass Tech High School following in the footsteps of trailblazing track star William DeHart Hubbard. Tolan sprinted in the 100 and 200-yard dashes at Michigan while anchoring the relay teams. He went on to medal at the Olympics, setting new world and Olympic records and, upon his return to the State, the Governor of Michigan proclaimed "Tolan Day".

Author John Behee chronicles Eddie Tolan'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.

Tolan Newspaper Articles Get Acrobat Reader | Tolan's Track Race Results

Eddie Tolan

Yost and Barringer congratulated themselves for bringing this rare athlete to Michigan. He had indeed been a wonderful asset. Only four years would elapse before the experience was repeated. As a matter of fact, there were two men: Thomas "Eddie" Tolan Jr. was a sprinter in 1929, '30, and '31, and Booker Brooks lettered as a weight man in 1929, '30, and '32. Both had read about Hubbard's gold medal as eighth graders.

Tolan came to Michigan from Detroit's Cass Tech High School, well-known for its high academic standards where he had won the state and national interscholastic dash championships. At Michigan the 5' 6", 130 pound speed merchant ran the 100- and 200-yard dashes and anchored the 440- and the 880-yard relay teams. For two years Ohio State's George Simpson beat him to the tape, but in his senior year the Big Ten sprints belonged to Tolan. He won the 60-yard dash indoors, tying the conference mark of 6.2, and the 100- (9.6) and the 220-yard (20.9) dashes outdoors.

After graduating in 1931, Tolan went to West Virginia State College in Charleston for graduate work, to do some coaching, and to keep in trim for the 1932 Olympics. The AAU's 1932 all-American track and field team listed him as the top 220-yard dash man in the country. He held the world's record of 9.5 for the 100-yards, although Frank Wykoff of Southern California had a 9.4 pending.

The United States trials were in Palo Alto, not far from Los Angeles where the 1932 Games were to be held. In both the 100- and 200-meter dashes Tolan was nipped by Ralph Metcalf of Marquette. Willis Ward recalled standing at the finish line of both races. "In both races," Ward recalled, "Tolan slackened near the finish enabling Metcalf, the favorite, to win. Afterwards, when Eddie and I were away from the other athletes he admitted letting Metcalf win so as not to alert him on how ready he (Tolan) was. Tolan, Metcalf, and George Simpson went on to represent their country in the sprints in Los Angeles. "Tolan never beat either Simpson or Metcalf in their practice sessions on starts and overs and unders in the weeks between the trials and the finals," said Ward, "but I knew he would win in the finals."

The United States hadn't won an Olympic gold medal in the 100-meters in 12 years, but that was to change. Though both Tolan and Metcalf were late out of the blocks, they came from behind after 50 meters with remarkable bursts of speed finishing in a near dead heat. The finish was so close that Metcalf was posted first as the victor. After long debate, the official judges decided Tolan had breasted the tape first by a shade. His time was 10.3 seconds, setting new Olympic and world records.

In the 200-meters Tolan won by two yards over George Simpson. Metcalf got off to a poor start and was never able to make up the lost ground, finishing third. Tolan's 21.2 seconds was an Olympic record.

The September 1932 issue of Opportunity, a black periodical, reported proudly:
In that dramatic moment when Eddie Tolan of the University of Michigan and Ralph Metcalf of Milwaukee, two American Negroes, fought shoulder to shoulder down the cindered lanes for victory in the 100-meter dash, seventy-five thousand of their countrymen forgot their prejudices and leaped to their feet in a delirium ofjoy. It was one of those occasions not uncommon in sports where admiration of outstanding ability thwarts traditional racial attitudes. In this instance it was more than that; it was the spirit of an aroused national consciousness submerging the consciousness of race...

In recognition of the honor brought to the State of Michigan in Olympic competition, the Governor of Michigan proclaimed "Tolan Day," thereby drawing attention of the people of the state to the achievements of one of its citizens. The mayor of Atlanta paid a similar tribute to Ralph Metcalf, a native of that city. Two other Michigan men competed in the Olympic trials at Palo Alto, senior Booker Brooks and freshman Willis Ward. Fate was not as kind to them, but it was clear they could perform with the best 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