Metcalfe, Ralph Horace

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METCALFE, Ralph Horace

(b. 30 May 1910 in Atlanta Georgia; d. 10 October 1978 in Chicago Illinois), sprinter who set or tied eight world records, won four Olympic medals, became the first African-American Illinois state athletic commissioner, and served as a congressional representative.

Metcalfe was one of three children born to Clarence Metcalfe, who worked in the stockyards, and Maria Attaway Metcalfe, a dressmaker. During World War I, while he was still in elementary school, Metcalfe's family moved from Atlanta to Chicago. He attended Tilden Technical High School, where he was advised by his coach to concentrate on track and forget football if he wanted to earn a college scholarship. His coach also told him that "as a black person he'd have to put daylight between himself and his nearest competitor if he expected to be declared the winner in a race."

As a result of hard training, Metcalfe emerged as a world-class sprinter in 1928. That year, as a high school junior, he placed second in the 100-and 220-yard dashes at the National Interscholastic Meet held at the University of Chicago. The following year he won both events in record times at the National Interscholastic Meet and the University of Michigan Interscholastic Meet. In August 1930, running for the Chase Park Athletic Club, he won the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) junior championships in both sprint events and placed fourth in the national senior AAU 220-yard dash; the next year he placed second in the 220 at the senior championships. In 1932 he set a world record in the 100-yard dash at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships, and won both dash events at the AAU championships.

Metcalfe paid his way to the 1932 Olympic trials by working in dining cars on the Santa Fe railroad. He secured a place on the team at the Los Angeles games, and managed to tie the world record in the 100-meter dash. Unfortunately, this was not fast enough to win the race, and he placed second to Eddie Tolan in a photo finish. He finished behind Tolan again in the 200-meter dash, but because his lane was mismeasured, he ran nearly 4 feet farther than his opponents and had to content himself with a bronze medal, even though he had probably earned the silver.

Metcalfe dominated sprinting for the next four years, until Jesse Owens emerged on the scene. In 1936 Metcalfe graduated from Marquette University in 1936 with a Ph.B., and again qualified for the U.S. Olympic team. At the Berlin Olympics that year he became the unofficial spokesperson for the African-American trackmen. He won a silver medal behind Jesse Owens in the 100-meter dash, and shared a team gold in the 4 x 100 relay. The Olympic games had a profound impact on Metcalfe's life, a sentiment also expressed by Jesse Owens, who noted, "Without athletics, neither one of us would have attained our positions in life."

After the Olympics, Metcalfe taught political science and coached track at Xavier University, a small African-American college in New Orleans, from 1936 to 1942. In 1939 he took a leave of absence from Xavier to earn an M.A. in physical education from the University of Southern California in 1940. He joined the U.S. Army in 1942, reaching the rank of first lieutenant. After the war he returned to Chicago where he became director of the civil rights department of the Chicago Commission on Human Rights (1945), a cause for which he maintained a lifelong commitment. In 1947 he married Madalynne Fay; they had one child.

From 1949 to 1952 Metcalfe served as the Illinois state athletic commissioner; he continued to pursue an active interest in track and field, sometimes officiating at the Chicago Daily News relays. He became the Democratic committee member for Chicago's Third Ward in 1952 and held that powerful position until 1972. He served as an alderman from 1955 to 1970, and in 1968 became the first African American to be elected president pro tempore of the Chicago City Council. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1970, representing the First Congressional District, and remained a representative until his death in 1978. Although he was originally a political insider in the Richard Daley organization, he broke with Daley in 1972 over issues involving police brutality toward African Americans. In 1976 he aligned himself with Jesse Jackson and Renault Robinson, and won reelection to Congress despite Daley's opposition.

Metcalfe was a member of the Presidential Commission on Olympic Sports (1975), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Urban League, the Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church of Chicago, the Wisconsin Hall of Fame, and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. He also sponsored the Ralph H. Metcalfe Youth Foundation, which provided athletic and educational programs for young people. Metcalfe, who had a long history of diabetes, emphysema, and high blood pressure, suffered his first heart attack in 1967. He died of a second heart attack eleven years later at age sixty-eight.

There is no formal biography of Metcalfe, but newspaper articles provide much information: Chicago Tribune (3 June 1928, 2 June 1929, 13 Oct. 1978); Atlantic Daily World (3 Apr. 1952); Detroit Times (12 May 1929, 5 July 1931); and the Milwaukee Journal (12 June 1932, 2 Aug. 1932). Metcalfe is discussed in Spaulding's Official Athletic Almanac (1931); Lewis H. Carlsonand John J. Fogarty, eds., Tales of Gold (1987); and David Wallechinsky, The Complete Book of the Olympics (1996). An obituary is in the New York Times (11 Oct. 1978).

Keith McClellan