John Woodruff was one of 18 African American athletes to take part in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, alongside renowned Olympian Jesse Owens. It was there, deep in Adolf Hitler’s Germany, that Woodruff won the gold in the 800-meter race.
“There was very definitely a special feeling in winning the gold medal and being a black man,” Woodruff said during a 1996 oral history interview for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “We destroyed his master-race theory whenever we [started] winning those gold medals.”
According to an article in NPR, the 18 athletes together won 14 medals – eight of which were gold. That was a quarter of the 56 medals won by the entire U.S. team.
NPR article goes on to say:
The 18 were called “The Black Eagles by The Pittsburgh Courier an influential African-American newspaper. In Berlin, they lived in the racially integrated Olympic Village, which was a high point many would never experience again.
“They were Olympic athletes when they were on the medal stand,” Draper says. “When they came back home to a segregated America, they came back to being Negroes.”
Deborah Riley Draper wrote, directed and produced the documentary called Olympic Pride, American Prejudice. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website provides information on each of the black athletes who participated in the 1936 Games and the medals they won.