A Look Back At Two Forgotten Pioneers

By Tony McClean
Updated: February 11, 2005

l to r: William Hubbard & Eddie Tolan

l to r: William Hubbard & Eddie Tolan

NEW HAVEN, Ct. — As we continue to look back at Black sport pioneers, we focus on the world of track and field.

William Hubbard was the first Black athlete to win an Olympic gold medal in an individual event, while Eddie Tolan was the first black athlete to win two Olympic gold medals.

We take a look at both of their accomplishments starting with Hubbard.


William DeHart Hubbard was born on November 25, 1903 in the Walnut Hills section of Cincinnati, Ohio. He was not only athletic but also intelligent, with a four-year scholastic average of 90.

Hubbard was part of the Golden Age of Sports and when people started using the word “superstar.” He was the national long jump champion of the 1920s who was also experienced in the sprints and triple jump.

A University of Michigan graduate, he competed in both the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games. His long jump victory in the 1924 Paris Olympics made him the first Black athlete to win an Olympic gold medal in an individual event.

His winning long jump of 24 ft.-5 inches was somewhat overshadowed by the performance of U.S. teammate John Legendre the day before.

Legendre, who had failed to make the squad as a long jumper, set a world record with a 25 ft. 5.75 inch leap while competing in the pentathlon. Hubbard closed out his U of M career in 1925 with a series of spectacular performances.

He tied the world records in the 60 and 100-yard dashes. In his final appearance as a Wolverine, Hubbard broke Legendre’s long jump world record with a leap of 25 ft.-10.85 inches.

From 1927-1941, Hubbard worked for the Cincinnati Recreation Commission. After that, in 1942, he was appointed Racial Relations Advisor for the Federal Public Housing Authority that provided better housing for minorities.

In 1957 he was voted into the National Track Hall of Fame. William Hubbard died on June 23, 1976.


Eddie Tolan was born on September 29, 1909. As a sprinter, the first black athlete to win two Olympic gold medals. In his track career Tolan won 300 races, losing only 7.

While attending high school in Detroit, Mich., often called ” The Midnight Express“. A native of Denver, Colorado, Tolan was the city and state champion in the 100- and 200-yard dashes.

At the University of Michigan, he attracted national attention in 1929 when he set a record in the 100-yard dash (9.5 seconds) and tied the record of 10.4 seconds in the 100-metre dash.

The 5-foot-7 inch Tolan, who raced with his glasses taped to his head, won the NCAA championship in the 200 and 220-yard dashes and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championship in the 100- and 220-yard events between 1929 and 1931.

He finished second to Ralph Metcalfe in the 100- and 200-metre dashes in the trials for the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. In the Games themselves, however, Tolan set an Olympic record by handily winning the 200-metre in 21.2 seconds.

Tolan also eked out a narrow photo-finish victory over Metcalfe in the 100-metre in 10.3 seconds, setting a world record.

Subsequently, Tolan had a brief career as a vaudeville performer with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and later became a schoolteacher. Edward Thomas Tolan died Jan. 30, 1967 in Detroit, Michigan.

In the era of Gail Devers, Michael Johnson, Marion Jones, and Maurice Taylor, the names Eddie Tolan and William Hubbard shouldn’t be forgotten as well.

NOTE: The African-American Registry contributed to this story.