Herbert P. Douglas Jr., the oldest living U.S. Olympic medalist — and a University of Pittsburgh alumnus and Trustee — died Saturday, April 22, 2023. He was 101.
Born March 9, 1922, Douglas grew up in Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood neighborhood, where he displayed remarkable athletic ability, running and playing basketball and competing in other sports at Taylor Allderdice High School. At just 14, Douglas met Jesse Owens, the legendary Black Olympian who won four gold medals at the 1936 Games in Berlin. Owens placed his arms around the young man, asked Douglas about himself, and encouraged him to go to college. From interaction, Owens became his mentor and confidant.
Douglas won city championships in tumbling, sprinting and basketball and state titles in track and field. In 1940, he set a broad jump record at Allderdice that stood for decades. But breaking sports records, while also overcoming racial barriers, was not always easy. The first Black basketball player at his high school, Douglas quit the squad after teammates refused to pass him the ball.
He won an athletic scholarship to Xavier University of Louisiana, the country’s only Catholic historically Black college or university. Ralph Metcalfe, the Xavier coach who recruited Douglas, won four track medals in the 1932 and 1936 Olympics. Under his tutelage, in 1942, Douglas’ 440-relay team made Xavier the first Black college to win a national title.
During Douglas’ sophomore year, he returned to Pittsburgh to help manage the family business started by his father, who had lost his sight to a stroke when Douglas was in the first grade. Working with and observing his disciplined father helped Douglas learn to “analyze, organize, initiate and follow through,” four steps to success that he regularly recommended to others.
He transferred to Pitt in 1945 and starred on the University’s football and track teams from 1945 to 1948. He won four intercollegiate championships in the long jump and one in the 100-yard dash. He additionally captured three national Amateur Athletic Union championships in the long jump. During his time at Pitt, he became close friends with Jimmy Joe Robinson, another pioneering Black student-athlete. Along with Allen Carter, they became the first Black football players at Pitt.
In 1948, Douglas graduated from the University with a bachelor’s degree and placed second in the Olympic trials in the long jump. A few months later, he won a bronze medal in London’s 1948 Summer Olympics, with a 24-foot, 8.75-inch jump.
In 1950, Douglas earned a master’s degree in education from Pitt. His goal was to be a coach, but he found that door closed because the public schools in Pittsburgh were not hiring African Americans as coaches then.
Instead, he turned to sales and marketing, starting at Pabst Brewing Co. In 1963 he moved to Philadelphia when he joined Schieffelin and Co., a premium wine and spirits firm that is now Moët Hennessy US. At Schieffelin and Co., Douglas worked his way to a vice presidency, becoming one of the first Black corporate executives in America to attain such a high position. He spent 30 years there, and remained devoted to the company, even in retirement.
As he climbed the corporate ladder, Douglas used his influence to get African Americans hired and then mentored them through promotions. In the course of his work, he befriended civil rights stalwarts such as Medgar Evers, Andrew Young and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He would later go on to meet U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama, and other world leaders.
After retiring, Douglas focused on a philanthropy that raised support for student athletes and showcased important aspects of the history of African Americans in sport. Douglas remained friends with fellow Olympian Owens for decades and founded the International Amateur Athletic Association in 1980 to honor Owens’ achievements by recognizing the finest amateur athletes in the world in his name. Recipients of the Jess Owens International Trophy Award have included diver Greg Louganis, runner Mary Decker and track and field double-gold medalists Roger Kingdom and Edwin Moses, who Douglas considered to be “surrogate sons.”
Douglas also created the Jesse Owens Global Award for Peace -- which recognized individuals who, from a background in sport, had made meaningful contributions to world fellowship or peace. Among the recipients of this award were United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, President George H.W. Bush and South African President Nelson Mandela.
Douglas also was proud of the two documentaries he co-produced with his friend Bob Lott. The first was central to a celebration of the first 100 years of African American athletes competing at Pitt. It was shown at the Petersen Events Center in a program that included sports journalist Bob Costas as emcee and featured CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield.
The second documentary was “The Renaissance of the African American Athlete in Sport.” It debuted at Lincoln Center in New York City, but Douglas soon showed it at Pitt, where Olympic champions came to share their thoughts and interact with Pitt students. The film focused on the African American track athletes who medaled at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. These were the games that Hitler hoped would establish the supremacy of the Aryan race, but these athletes shattered that myth. The most famous was Jesse Owens, but a Pitt freshman named John Woodruff won the gold medal in the 800 meters. Jackie Robinson’s older brother was also one of the medalists.
Among his many Pitt honors, Douglas received the Chancellor’s Medal and the University’s Bicentennial Medallion. He also was recognized as a Legacy Laureate and as a Distinguished Alumni Fellow by the Pitt Alumni Association and as a Distinguished Alumnus by its African American Alumni Council. When he was inducted into the inaugural class of the Pitt Sports Hall of Fame, he received a standing ovation, clearly reflecting the respect he had earned, not only as an athlete but as a business leader and humanitarian. Douglas was only the second recipient of the Louis Zamparini Lifetime Achievement Award presented by the U.S. Olympians and Paralympians Association. He also was awarded honorary degrees by Bowie State University and Xavier University of Louisiana.
Even with his international accomplishments and global networks, Douglas remained a champion for his hometown neighborhood of Hazelwood. A colorful mural there still heralds his 1948 Olympic win, and he has been recognized as a Hazelwood hero.
Douglas was predeceased by his parents, Herbert P. Douglas Sr. and Ilessa Douglas; his sister, Barbara Joy Stevens; and his son, Herbert P. Douglas III. He is survived by daughter Barbara Joy Ralston of Copenhagen, Denmark; daughter-in-law Susan Douglas of Richmond, VA; four grandchildren, Tracy Douglas of Richmond, VA, Christopher Douglas of Aldie, VA, Mikel Christianson of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Anja Besnik of Vienna, Austria; as well as by great-grandchildren, grandnieces and grandnephews.
A memorial service celebrating his remarkable life will be held at the Heinz Memorial Chapel on the University of Pittsburgh campus on Wednesday, May 3 at 2:00 p.m. Memorial contributions can be made to the Herbert P. Douglas Jr. Scholarship or the Herbert P. Douglas Jr. Indoor Track (https://www.giveto.pitt.edu/douglasmemorial) project at the University of Pittsburgh. His family also wishes to express its gratitude for the attentive care that Douglas received at UPMC Canterbury Place and UPMC Family Hospice during the final months of his life. Arrangements by John A. Freyvogel Sons, Inc. (freyvogelfuneralhome.com)
To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of Herbert P. Douglas, Jr., please visit our floral store.