Pittsburgh native Herb Douglas Jr. won a bronze medal in the 1948 Olympics and started the Jesse Owens International Trophy Award.
As he traveled America’s segregated South in the 1950s and early ’60s, Olympic medalist Herb Douglas did not use a Green Book, a travel guide carried by African Americans.
Instead, the Pittsburgh native relied on distributors of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.
“Those guys recommended good hotels and restaurants. I worked with four white men in the beginning.” One of them “wanted me to call him Mr. Roy,” Mr. Douglas recalled.
Now 97 and living in Philadelphia, the winner of the 1948 Olympic bronze medal for the long jump is the subject of a new pictorial biography.
“Launched: The Life of Olympian Herb Douglas” is a visual scrapbook filled with vivid memories. The author is Anne P. Madarasz, chief historian at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District. She also directs the curatorial division and the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.
Born in 1922, Mr. Douglas was nurturing big athletic dreams when Jesse Owens, winner of four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics, visited an elementary school in Pittsburgh.
“When I met Jesse Owens, I was 14. I actually thought I’d be as good as he was,” Mr. Douglas said, chuckling, during a recent interview at the Heinz History Center.
Owens urged him to get an education, something he never forgot. Mr. Douglas’ intense drive was rooted in his Hazelwood upbringing. At age 8, he ran errands for his mother up and down a steep hill on Hazelwood Avenue, strengthening his legs.
He played on the Gladstone Junior High School basketball team and trained hard, praying to win an Olympic medal. He attended St. John the Evangelist Baptist Church on Sylvan Avenue and graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School and the University of Pittsburgh.
His parents, Ilessa and Herb Douglas Sr., worked hard, persevering in an era when many African Americans struggled to get by.
“My dad taught me how to be positive. I worked for him for three years. He was like a coach — stringent,” Mr. Douglas said.
An auto mechanic who also owned a parking garage in Shadyside, his father treated every car like it was his own, he said.
When Herb Jr. was 5, his father suffered a stroke that left him blind. In despair, he urged his wife to leave him and find a man capable of caring for Herb Jr. and his sister, Barbara.
With faith and fortitude, Ilessa Douglas held her family together. She rearranged the house so her husband could move easily, became his eyes at the garage and kept the books for the business. Gradually, her husband regained his confidence, had a series of guide dogs and continued to work.
“She was his eyes for 51 years,” Mr. Douglas said.
He is part of a generation of pioneering African American athletes that began with Jesse Owens and includes Connellsville native John Woodruff, who won a gold medal in the 1936 Olympics, and Harrison Dillard of Cleveland, who won four gold medals in 1948 and 1952.
“There’s this sharing of knowledge and this way of improving the experience and reach of the people that come after them,” Ms. Madarasz said.
Mr. Douglas, she added, is “one of the first African American athletes who successfully transitions from the world of sports to a larger world of business and civic life and not because he is promoting another product but because his skill is building a business.“
In the South, while building a market for Pabst Blue Ribbon, Mr. Douglas also pushed the brewery to hire African Americans as salesmen and drivers.
“The impact he had on economics nationally is important. It’s a different side to the civil rights story. These are people who are building new job opportunities,” Ms. Madarasz said.
Later, he worked for two other beverage businesses, Schieffelin & Co. and Moet Hennessy.
“He’s Herb Douglas, the successful salesman. He’s educated and he knows how to get results,” Ms. Madarasz said.
Mr. Douglas Jr., co-founded the Jesse Owens International Trophy Award with Owens’ widow, Ruth and their three daughters in 1981. They wanted to honor Owens and created this annual, charitable celebration where the biggest sports icons of yesterday and today gather to continue his legacy.
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