Metcalfe, Ralph 1910–1978
Ralph Metcalfe 1910–1978
Olympic track star, Congressman
Ralph Metcalfe gained national attention as an African American pioneer not just in his first career as a sprinter known as “the world’s fastest human,” but also in his second, as a U.S. Congressman representing part of the city of Chicago. He was present at, and shaped the outcomes of, two of the most crucial conflicts of the twentieth century. His track-and-field career culminated in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany, where Metcalfe and fellow sprinter Jesse Owens dealt a crucial public-relations blow to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler and his theories of white supremacy. Later, as a Chicago politician, Metcalfe broke with the city’s Democratic machine to denounce the often racist tactics of the city’s police department.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 30, 1910, Metcalfe was the third child of laborer Clarence Metcalfe and his wife Mamie. Like many other southern African Americans, the Metcalfes moved north in their search for a better quality of life in the Midwest’s rapidly growing industrial cities. Clarence Metcalfe found work of the most difficult kind by taking a job at Chicago’s notorious stockyards. Metcalfe’s mother made dresses, and young Ralph was put to work part time to help the family make ends meet. The family’s life was not easy, but it offered enough stability that Metcalfe was able to stay in Chicago’s Tilden Technical High School and pursue the athletic skills that became obvious when he joined the school’s track team at the age of 15.
A national high-school sprint champion in 1929, Metcalfe entered Marquette University. He quickly began to shatter National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) records, becoming captain of the track team and winning the title of National Collegiate Champion for three years running between 1932 and 1934. Metcalfe made the 1932 U.S. Olympic team, winning the silver medal in the 100-meter dash after finishing in a famous record-time dead heat with Eddie Tolan, who was declared the winner after officials reviewed films of the race. Metcalfe also took the bronze in the 200-meter race. He excelled in intercollegiate competition over the next several years, winning NCAA championships in the 100-and 220-yard dashes in 1933 and 1934, and taking several Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) crowns.
Metcalfe gained more experience in international competition as part of a select U.S. track-and-field team. Despite his athletic stardom, he did not neglect his studies. In 1936, after winning election as senior class
Born in Atlanta, GA, on May 30, 1910; died in Chicago, IL, on October 10, 1978. married Madalynne Fay Young on July 20, 1947; children: Ralph Jr. Education: Marquette University, B. Phil., 1936; University of Southern California, master’s degree in physical education, 1939. Military service: U.S. Army, 1943-46.
Career: Champion sprinter and U.S. Congressional Representative. NCAA champion in 100- and 200-meter sprints, 1932, 1933, 1934; U.S. Olympic medalist in two events, LosAngeles Olympic Games, 1932; silver medal in 100-meter dash, gold medal in 400-meter relay, Berlin, Germany Olympic Games, 1936; track coach and instructor in several subjects, Xavier-University, New Orleans, 1936-42; director, Chicago Department of Civil Rights, 1946-49;named to Illinois State Athletic Commission, 1949; elected alderman, Chicago City Council, 1955; U.S. congressman, 1970-78.
president, Metcalfe received his bachelor’s degree. That fall Metcalfe competed for the United States once again in the Olympics, and found himself at a historic confluence of politics and sports. Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler had intended that the 1936 Olympic Games, which were held in Berlin, Germany, would be a showcase for his theories of white (or “Aryan”) genetic superiority. The predominantly African American U.S. track squad arrived in Germany in an atmosphere charged with tension.
Little did Hitler know that Metcalfe and the legendary Jesse Owens would spoil those plans. Metcalfe, who maintained a lifelong friendship with Owens and spurred him to even greater athletic heights, took the silver medal in the 100-meter dash behind Owens. The two then joined forces on the U.S. 400-meter relay team, opening up a 15-meter margin over their nearest competition and setting a record that would last for 20 years, an eternity in track-and-field terms. The Olympic medal ceremony, at which Owens insisted that Metcalfe step onto the highest platform of the medal stage, crowned Metcalfe’s track career.
From 1936 to 1942, Metcalfe coached track and taught physical education and political science at Xavier University, a historically black institution in New Orleans. Along the way, he worked toward a master’s degree in physical education at the University of Southern California, earning that degree in 1939. Metcalfe’s career as an educator was interrupted by the World War II military draft. He achieved the rank of first lieutenant in the Army, and received the Legion of Merit award for his work as a physical training officer with an Army transportation unit in Louisiana. Returning home to Chicago after the war, Metcalfe briefly sold insurance, but the wider world he had seen in the Army fired his ambition to work for equality between the races. He began to think about a career in politics, and landed two government jobs that helped to pave the way. From 1946 to 1949 he was the director of Chicago’s newly created Department of Civil Rights, then a sub-agency of the Commission on Human Relations. In 1949, Metcalfe was named to the Illinois State Athletic Commission. That year, he began to work his way up the ladder of Chicago’s famed Democratic Party machine, volunteering as an assistant precinct captain—a get-out-the-vote worker—in the city’s Third Ward.
Four years of work in the political trenches were rewarded with an appointment as Third Ward committeeman in 1953. This was a position of considerable power in the Chicago political hierarchy because Democratic ward officials, not professional civil service employees, controlled the dispensing of city jobs. In 1955, Metcalfe was elected to the Chicago City Council. That year, a politically savvy young Irishman named Richard Daley was elected mayor. As a loyal cog in the Democratic machine, Metcalfe became a staunch Daley ally.
Metcalfe became one of the most powerful African American politicians in Chicago, rising to the chairmanship of the council’s building and zoning committee. However, he was increasingly troubled by suggestions from black activists that he was acting as a puppet of the Democratic machine. This machine was dominated by white ethnic blocs and was seen as having done little to better the lot of Chicago’s large African American population. When the South Side’s longtime African American congressman, William Dawson, retired before the 1970 election cycle, Metcalfe won the Democratic primary to succeed him. With the support of the party machine, he also won handily in November. Metcalfe’s election set the stage for a late-life conversion.
Chicago’s police department was known for its ruthless treatment of African American residents, and Metcalfe irked Daley in 1972 by speaking out against police abuses. His break with Daley became permanent when he refused to support Daley’s candidate for the post of Cook County state’s attorney, Edward Hanrahan. Han-rahan had engineered a notorious 1969 police raid on Chicago’s Black Panther party headquarters, which resulted in the death of activist Fred Hampton. Daley retaliated by supporting Metcalfe’s primary opponents in subsequent primary elections, but Metcalfe’s stature in the African American community was reaffirmed when he won reelection handily on three separate occasions.
According to Notable Black American Men, Metcalfe told a 1972 meeting of the activist group People United to Save Humanity (PUSH) that he had “turned black.” Over his four terms in Congress, he emerged as a spokesman for liberal causes, championing job and housing bills, increased access to health care, and consumer protection. Metcalfe is also noted for his role in working out the treaty that eventually returned control of the Panama Canal to the country in which it is located. Metcalfe died of a probable heart attack at his home in Chicago on October 10, 1978. Many observers believe that his challenge to Mayor Daley paved the way for the election of Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, in 1982.
Barone, Michael, Grant Ujifusa, and Douglas Matthews, The Almanac of American Politics 1978, Dutton, 1978.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1999.
Who’s Who Among Black Americans, Northbrook, IL: Who’s Who, 1978.
Jet, October 10, 1994, p. 29.
New York Times, November 6, 1978.
Sports Illustrated, December 27, 1999.
—James M. Manheim
May 30, 1910
October 10, 1978
The athlete and congressman Ralph Horace Metcalfe was born in Atlanta, Georgia, but moved to Chicago at an early age. While an undergraduate at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Metcalfe was the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) champion in the 100 yards and 220 yards three years in a row (1932–1934). During the same period, he won the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championship in the 100 meters (1932–1934) and 200 meters (1932–1936). He also won the silver medal in the 100 meters at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, running in the same official time (10.3) as the winner (officials declared Metcalfe second after a lengthy study of a film showing the finish), and the bronze medal in the 200 meters. Although he was the dominant sprinter in the world during the early 1930s and set or tied the world records in the 40 yards, 60 yards, 60 meters, 100 yards, 100 meters, 220 yards, and the 200 meters, he again finished second in the 100 meters at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, this time behind Jesse Owens. Metcalfe won an Olympic gold medal as a member of the 1936 U.S. 4- by 100-meter relay team.
In 1936 Metcalfe retired from sprinting and graduated from Marquette. While teaching political science and coaching the track team at Xavier University in New Orleans from 1936 to 1942, he also completed work for an M.A. in political science from the University of Southern California (1939). He joined the army in 1942, and after the war returned to Chicago to become the director of the Department of Civil Rights for the Chicago Commission on Human Rights (1945). From 1949 to 1952 he was the Illinois athletic commissioner, the first African American to hold this position. He became active in Democratic politics in Chicago and was the Democratic Party committeeman for the 3rd Ward of Chicago (1952–1972), and later alderman (1955–1969). In 1970 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. As a congressman, Metcalfe worked to make more home and business loans available to minority communities. He served on the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee as well as the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, where as chair of the Subcommittee on the Panama Canal he supported the 1978 treaty turning control of the canal over to Panama.
During his long political career in Chicago, Metcalfe became a political insider and a part of Mayor Richard Daley's political machine. But in 1972 he broke with Daley, challenging him on the issue of police brutality toward blacks. Daley ran a candidate against Metcalfe in the Democratic primary, but with the assistance of the Congressional Black Caucus Metcalfe defeated Daley's candidate. He was in his fourth term as a congressman and was running unopposed for a fifth when he died of a heart attack in 1978.
Ashe, Arthur R., Jr. A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete, 1919–1945. New York: Warner, 1988.
Obituary. New York Times, November 6, 1978.
Ragsdale, Bruce A., and Joel D. Treece. Black Americans in Congress, 1870–1989. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990.
peter schilling (1996)