A LEGENDARY SPRINTER HONORED
Los Angeles, California, March 31, 2006–The University of Southern California is staging its 10th annual "Trojans of Ebony Hue Exhibition," organized by USC's Black Alumni Association. The exhibition is on display in Heritage Hall on the USC campus through May 19. March 31 was designated "Howard P. Drew Day" at the exhibition.
Heading into the Olympic season of 1912, one of the major American players expected in both dashes in Stockholm was Springfield, Massachusetts, sprinter Howard P. Drew.
Drew had burst on the national scene in 1910, when he set several national prep records, and continued to 1911 when he won the U.S. Junior 100-yard title. In '12, the 21-year-old Drew won the U.S. Olmpic Trials 100m in 10.8 to tie the American Record. At the Stockholm Games, Drew went unbeaten through the preliminaries.
But as he won his semi, Drew suffered a leg tendon injury. He hobbled to the starting line for the final, but he couldn't compete and had to withdraw. U.S. teammate Ralph Craig won the title in 10.8 and later took the 200 crown.
Drew was sufficiently recovered later in the '12 season to win the U.S. 100y title in 10-flat. The next year, he took both U.S. dashes, clocking 10.4 in the 100y and 22.8 at 220y, both into negative winds.
In 1913 as a Southern Cal frosh, Drew twice tied the 100y WR of 9.6. During his career, Drew also set numerous bests at odd sprint distances, including a near-record 7.6 to win the U.S. indoor 75y title. He was often called he "World's Fastest Man."
Drew also was a gifted student, earning perfect grades at USC. He became an attorney after World War I and served as an assistant legal clerk and a judge in Hartford, Connecticut–both firsts for an African-American. He died in 1957 at age 66.
His son, Howard P. Drew, Jr., gives a more detailed look at the life of this extraordinary man:
Howard P. Drew
June 1890 - February 1957
by Howard P. Drew Jr.
"The Greatest Runner of the Age, "Fastest Human," "World's Champion," "Greatest Sprinter in the World," "Greatest Athlete of the Decade." Most of us have heard of Me! Whitfield, Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and their exploits on the race track. How many of you have heard of Howard P. Drew, the first truly great sprinter? He set world records in the 45, 50, 70, 90, 100, 120 and 220 yard dashes shortly after the turn of the last century.
Howard P. Drew was born in Lexington, Virginia, on June 28, 1890. His family migrated north when he was in his early teens. They settled in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father, a Baptist minister, and his mother did not want to raise a child in the segregated south. During his formative years his parents impressed upon him that he could do and be anything he wanted to be if he would just put his mind to it.
In 1905 he entered Springfield High School. It was there that he developed an interest in athletics. Because of his great speed he became a star football player, "a grand open field runner."
He entered his first serious sprint competition on July 4,1905, at the age of 15. He won the 100 yard dash in 10.8 seconds and the 440 in 61 seconds. This was without any training or coaching, yet "he ran in almost perfect form."
Drew went on to the Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1912. He was the winner in all of his trials but pulled a tendon in the final and had to withdraw. The sprinter that won the sold in this event, Howard had beaten before and after. This was the biggest disappointment of his athletic career. Other members of the team that year were the great Native American athlete Jim Thorpe and General George Patton. Four years later, in 1916, the games were suspended because of World War I. That was when Drew was in his prime.
He excelled in other athletic endeavors. He was a world-class long jumper, high jumper, and high hurdler. He won letters in football and baseball. In later years he took up tennis and at the age of 45 he won the city championship in Hartford, Connecticut.
He was an excellent scholar, maintaining all in high school, college and law school. He did this while participating in athletics, as well as working to support himself. He was "highly commended" by the President of the University of Southern California for his excellent work.
Drew was proud of his academic achievements as well as his athletic ability. When he was an undergraduate student, he was honored by being made a member of the prestigious Skull and Dagger fraternity. He was asked to become one of the officials but declined. Drew also declined the offer to manage the South Californian, the college paper. He did accept the managership of the freshman football team.
He and others, were instrumental in bringing American football to the West Coast. The Pasadena Tournament of Roses featured a track meet, not a football game as is presently the case. He, of course won the gold in most of the sprints as evidenced by the silver cups in my possession. The student body at USC liked, admired, and respected him. His education was interrupted more than once in high school, college, and law school for lack of finds and service in the army. During these interruptions he noted how important an education was. He was determined to go back and finish.
Some of the work he was doing to support himself was writing. Nearly a century ago he was writing about physical fitness, exercise, civil rights, human rights, universal peace, and racial equality. In his articles he demonstrated humor and ingenuity. As an undergraduate student, he wrote two articles a week on sports and other subjects for the Los Angeles Examiner. He also wrote for the Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican, which at the time was one of the best newspapers in the country. He also wrote for the Hartford Courant as well as other publications.
In one of his articles, he relates how as a youngster he developed an interest in track and wanted to participate in the sport. Having seen some running shorts, he decided that he wanted a pair. His mother did not have his enthusiasm for the sport. He knew that she would not give him money to purchase them. However she had taught him how to sew or so he thought. Needless to say, he made a pair of shorts from one of his mothers bedsheets, using his pants as a pattern.
Dad said, "I walked proudly onto the athletic field." No one seemed to take notice of his outfit. "They were a little tight, but what of it. Now my shorts lasted fine for the 100 yards, much to the delight of the crowd. I ran through the distance well in the lead and enjoyed my first real bliss of athletic success."
However, not being satisfied with that, he thought he would try the running broad jump. As he took off he heard a tearing or ripping sound. Upon landing he had a nil apron in lieu of his shorts. He made a beeline for the locker room and did not find out until the next day that he had won the event.
In another one of his newspaper articles, he writes after having won his first two or three events, he decided that he needed a pair of spiked running shoes. However because he was being punished by his parents for going swimming without permission, he knew better then to ask for money to purchase them. He began to think how to go about acquiring a pair. He drove six shingle nails through the soles of his tennis shoes from the inside. Then he bought a piece of leather at a shoe repair shop to serve as an inner sole. It seemed to work. The heads of the nails hurt his feet but that was not important.
What was important was the final result. He ran two races. He won the first race in his self-made "spiked" running shoes and the second race with his bare feet. He said, "what the nails failed to do to my feet, the cinders on the ground did. I felt I had been walking on a sea of glass mingled with fire. I went home with sore feet, but very proud of my two medals. Mother failed to share my pride and when she finished with me, I not only had two sore feet, but also had a very sore backside."
By the time he reached the upper grades in high school, he had attained a national reputation as a sprinter. He established and tied many World Records while still in high school. At team competitions, it was not unusual for him to win more points than his team or the opposing team. For example, he would win first place in the 100- and 220-yard dashes, the 220-yard hurdles and the running jump.
Both his athletic and academic pursuits were put on hold during World War I. He spent nine months overseas as the first sergeant of Supply Company, 809th Pioneer Infantry, 88th Division. While in Europe he participated in some track meets in addition to help train the Army track team in Nice, France.
After the war, Drew finished law school at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Although past his prime he could still hold his own in intercollegiate competition. After passing the bar in Connecticut, Ohio and Iowa in 1920, he retired from competitive sports and settled in Hartford to set up his practice. He married Dora Helen Newcomb (my mother). They met while he was studying law at Drake. They had two children, my sister Jean D. Lightfoot and me.
For many years, in the 1930s early 1940s he was the official starter for the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association Track and field competitions held at Hampton and Morgan State Universities.
Subsequent to setting up his law practice in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1920 he became active in politics. He was elected to eight two year terms as a justice of peace, appointed to the position of assistant city clerk (first Negro to hold an appointed office in either the police of city courts in the state). Judge in the police court (one of the first Black judges in the country). Chairman of the draft board during WWII. He was also a ward chairman, a member of the governor's commission to study Negro unemployment, delegate to the state political conventions, etc.
He died in February, 1957. To quote an editorial about him that appeared in a local newspaper when he died, "When he died he had lived a life of usefulness to his community. He had performed able public service. He could rest in the knowledge that he as much as any man in Hartford had done his bit to aid the progress that the city, state and nation are making, slowly to be sure, but in the right direction."