Gourdin, Edward O.
Edward O. Gourdin
Athlete, soldier, judge
Edward Orval Gourdin was an exceptional athlete, soldier, and judge. In all of his endeavors he proved to be a barrier breaker. He was the first man in history to long jump 25 feet and the first African American to win a silver medal in the Olympics in the long jump event. In 1921, he set a new collegiate long jump record with his leap of 24 feet 6 inches. In both 1921 and 1922, he won the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) National Pentathlon Championship. Gourdin was the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. He served in World War II as Commanding Officer of the 372nd Infantry and retired from the National Guard with the rank of brigadier general.
Edward Orval Gourdin was born on August 10, 1897, one of nine children born to Walter Holmes Gourdin, a meat cutter, who was part African American and Seminole Indian, and Felicia (Garvin) Gourdin, an African American. There are few details about his life prior to graduation from high school. However, it is evident that he was the child chosen to be the one in the family who would be committed to education. The family would do all they could make it possible for Edward to excel. While the family's finances were meager, their belief in education was rich. They recognized in their son the intellect and the ability to succeed.
- Born in Jacksonville, Florida on August 10
- Graduates from Cambridge High and Latin Preparatory School; enters Harvard University
- Becomes the National AAU's junior 100-yard champion
- Establishes a new world record on July 23 with his broad jump of 25 feet 3 inches; wins the National AAU Pentathlon Championship; sets a new collegiate long jump record with 24 feet 6 inches
- Wins the National AAU Pentathlon Championship
- Marries Amalia Ponce of Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 10
- Wins a silver medal in the long jump (the first African American to win this medal) in Paris, France, at the VIII Olympiad; graduates with the LL.B. from Harvard
- Joins the Student Training Corps and enlists in the National Guard; admitted to the Massachusetts bar
- Becomes a member of the federal bar
- Appointed assistant U.S. attorney by Franklin Delano Roosevelt
- Assigned to the 372nd Infantry and becomes the commanding officer
- Appointed colonel
- Discharged from the army; rejoins the National Guard
- Appointed justice of Roxbury District Court
- Sworn in as the first African American on the Massachusetts Superior Court
- Retires from the National Guard with the rank of brigadier general
- Dies in Quincy, Massachusetts on July 22; buried in Cotuit, Cape Cod, Massachusetts
- Recognized on May 1, Law Day, with the posthumous unveiling of Gourdin's portrait, painted by Robert Freeman, in Boston's Old Suffolk County Courthouse
Edward Gourdin excelled in academics and in sports at Stanton High School in Jacksonville, Florida, and he was valedictorian of his graduating class. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, at age nineteen, he entered Cambridge High and Latin Preparatory School where he completed one year prior to his entry into college. In the fall of 1917, Gourdin entered Harvard University. In 1923, he married Amalia Ponce of Cambridge, Massachusetts. They subsequently became the parents of four children (Elizabeth, Ann Robinson, Amelia Laindal, and Edward Orval Jr.). Gourdin graduated from Harvard in 1921 with a B.A. and from Harvard School of Law in 1924 with the LL.B. In 1925, he was admitted to the Massachusetts bar, and in 1929, he was admitted to the federal bar.
Gourdin entered Harvard in pursuit of a law degree and with the idea of playing baseball. He lettered in both baseball and basketball at Harvard. However, he made his lasting mark in athletics in the long jump. Gourdin ran for Harvard during the school year (September to June) and for clubs in the summer which had been formed by middle-class African Americans. Gourdin ran for the racially integrated Dorchester Athletic Club of Boston, Massachusetts. The year 1921 was a stellar period for Gourdin. At the Harvard-Yale meet, he won the long jump at 24 feet and 14 inches; the 100-yard dash in 10.4 seconds; and finished second in the 200-yard dash. Against Princeton, he won the long jump, the 100-yard dash, and the 200-yard dash. His long jump of 24 feet and 6 inches set a new collegiate record. In a Harvard-Yale and Oxford-Cambridge track meet, he established a new world record by jumping 25 feet and 3 inches. He became the National AAU champion in the pentathlon in both 1921 and 1922 by achieving the combined requisite points in the long jump, 100-meter dash, discus, and 1500 meters. In 1924, after completing the law school exams at Harvard and missing the graduation activities, he went to Paris, France, to participate in the games of the VIII Olympiad men's athletic event. He came in second in the long jump event with 23 feet and 10 inches and became the first African American to win a silver medal in this event. Ironically, the day following the event, he jumped 25 feet and 8 inches which exceeded the jump of the gold medalist by 1 foot and 3 inches; but it took place as a part of an exhibition event and did not count.
As a sophomore at Harvard, Edward Gourdin joined the Student Training Corps and in 1925 enlisted in the National Guard. In 1941, he entered World War II where he was assigned to the 372nd Infantry Regiment, a segregated unit, and served as its commanding officer both in the United States and abroad. He rose to the rank of colonel, serving until 1947. Gourdin excelled within the limits of the segregated army as he had in athletics. After the army, he resumed his law practice. Upon his discharge, he rejoined the National Guard and served in it until 1959. He retired having earned the rank of brigadier general, the first African American to earn this rank in the state of Massachusetts.
Life in the Legal Arena
While pursuing his law degree at Harvard University, Gourdin worked as a postal clerk. Following graduation, even after attaining his law degree in 1924, he retained his postal clerk job. It was difficult to find a position with a law firm. Like many African Americans, he found that the post office was a viable source of revenue. Despite his talent, degree, and his admission to the Massachusetts bar in 1925, he found it necessary to retain the job of postal clerk until 1927.
While working as a postal clerk, he strove to establish a private practice. In 1929, he was admitted to the federal bar and began to work in politics. He began as a Republican, but in the 1930s, he switched to the Democratic Party. This activity led to his association with many prominent and influential individuals in Boston. One of these was Francis J. W. Ford, who had been named U. S. attorney for Massachusetts. He encouraged Franklin Delano Roosevelt to appoint Gourdin assistant U. S. attorney, and he was named to this post in 1936. He held this position, excluding the years he was in the National Guard, until 1951.
Following his years in the National Guard and his return to the assistant attorney's position, he was promoted to chief of the Civil Division. In 1951, he was appointed justice of Roxbury District Court. In 1958, Gourdin became the first African American to be seated on the Massachusetts Superior Court. Thurgood Marshall, a future Supreme Court justice, was present when Gourdin was sworn into the court. Gourdin retained his judgeship until his death in 1966.
As a result of the efforts of his son Edward Jr., Gourdin was honored on Law Day, May 1, 1997, in the Old Suffolk County courthouse in Boston; at this time, jurists and legislators, African Americans and whites, came together to honor his achievements as athlete, soldier, and judge, and his portrait was unveiled.
During his life time, Gourdin worked with and supported the NAACP, the Roxbury Youth Program, and the New England Olympians. His papers, photographs, scrapbooks, and records are housed in the Department of Special Collections in Mugar Memorial Library at Boston University.
Ashe, Arthur R. Jr. A Hard Road to Glory—Track & Field: The African American Athlete in Track & Field. New York: Amistad, 1993.
Abeel, Daphne. "Edward Orval Gourdin—Brief Life of a Breaker of Barriers: 1897–1966." http://126.96.36.199/issues/nd97/vita.html (Accessed 11 March 2006).
Dean, Amy. "Edward Gourdin: Olympic silver medalist, but a man of firsts." B. U. Bridge, Vol. V, No. 23, 15 February 2002. http://www.bu.edu/bridge/archive/2002/02-15/connect.htm (Accessed 11 March 2006).
Frenette, Gene. "Athletes of the Century: Discover Jacksonville's hidden treasure." http://www.jacksonville.com/special/athletes_of_century/stories/gourdin.shtml (Accessed 11 March 2006).
Helen R. Houston