Unlikely Sprinter

Cass Tech/U-M graduate Eddie ‘The Midnight Express’ Tolan ran to fame in the 1932 Olympic games.


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Eddie Tolan was riding high. The Detroit sprinter known as “The Midnight Express” had snagged two gold medals in the 100-meters and 200-meters events at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, setting world and Olympic records as he did.

As his train pulled into Michigan Central Station to return home, a welcoming committee greeted him, organized by Detroit Mayor Frank Murphy. Michigan Gov. Wilber M. Brucker decreed Sept. 6, 1932, “Eddie Tolan Day.” The press referred to him as “the fastest human alive.” 

But “the fastest human” had a tough time just gaining traction in private life after the Olympics. The spoils of victory amounted to zilch. If the world was Tolan’s oyster, he soon found there was no pearl within. As the accolades began to dim, so did his prospects. He received no lucrative endorsements. Worse, he couldn’t find employment. 

And it wasn’t because Tolan lacked education; he held a degree from the University of Michigan and had done graduate work at West Virginia State College. That was unusual for anyone in the depths of the Depression, but it was particularly notable for a man of color, which Tolan was. 

When Tolan reflected on the reception he received at the train station, he saw his half-brother Fred cleaning trash from the grounds. “He was luckier than I was,” Tolan reportedly said. “He had a job.”

Tolan worked briefly in vaudeville with dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Eventually, he found employment as a file clerk at the Wayne County Register of Deeds.

“What made matters worse was that he was supporting his mother and siblings,” says Louis Jones, a historian and archivist with the Detroit African American History Project at Wayne State University’s Walter P. Reuther Library. “He wanted to go back to school and become a physician, but for him family came first.”

Dismayed but not depressed, Tolan told The New York Times in 1933: “I haven’t any complaints. I just don’t think I’ll run again. I’m sticking to my job.”

But in 1935 Tolan did run again — at the World Professional Sprint Championships in Melbourne, Australia, where he won the 75-, 100-, and 220-yard events. But again, glory was fleeting. Tolan returned to his county job.

In later years, Tolan landed a position as a physical education teacher at Detroit’s Irving Elementary School on West Willis Street. 

Tolan was an unlikely looking sprinter. Instead of the long, lanky physique one might expect, he was compact and short. Sources give his height as being anywhere from 5 feet 4 inches to 5 feet 7 inches. That low center of gravity apparently helped him run like the wind.

His countenance was also surprising; his round spectacles were taped to his head so they wouldn’t fall off while sprinting, Tolan looked more like a college professor than an athlete. 

Born in Denver in 1908, Thomas Edward “Eddie” Tolan moved to Salt Lake City with his family. When Tolan was 15, the family arrived in Detroit. He attended Cass Technical High School, where he ran track and also played quarterback on the school’s football team. 

While at Cass, Tolan was the state and national champ in the 100- and 220-yard dashes.

“Thomas Tolan, the father, worked as a chef in Salt Lake City but believed there would be better opportunities for him and his family in Detroit,” Jones says. 

“The education of his kids was a big issue, too. So they came to Detroit with hopes of a better life. But it really didn’t turn out that way. His mother had to work as a washer woman.”

Things looked up when Tolan won a scholarship to the University of Michigan. Again, he was on the track team and played quarterback, but not on the varsity team. 

Jones says that Tolan’s time at U-M wasn’t always happy. 

“He wasn’t treated very well,” he says. “He was not allowed in many instances to eat with his teammates when they went on road trips. And he was told by his coach point-blank not to complain because he said he’d be the last black person on the track team for as long as he was there. But he won all kinds of accolades.” 

Indeed, in 1929 Tolan set the word record in the 100-yard dash. In his entire career he won 300 races and lost seven.

His streak of misfortune followed him to the grave. Tolan’s kidneys failed and he received weekly dialysis treatments. On Jan. 31, 1967, while undergoing dialysis, Tolan died of a heart attack at Detroit’s old Mount Carmel Mercy Hospital on West Outer Drive. He was 58 and was buried in Plymouth at United Memorial Gardens. Tolan never married and had no children to carry the torch for him. 

Jesse Owens, another African-American track star who won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, respected Tolan not only as an athlete but also as a friend. In Tolan’s obituary in Jet magazine, Owens said, “When I was in high school, Eddie and Ralph [Metcalfe] were my idols. Eddie and I later became close friends. I used to live in Detroit, and every time I’d go back, Eddie was one of the first ones I’d look up.”

Metcalfe was the sprinter Tolan beat by a hair in the 100-meters race in 1932, but they were friends as well as competitors and even roomed together during the Olympics. 

In 1936, the world was a more ominous place than it was in 1932. War clouds were starting to gather, and a fascist menace named Adolf Hitler was stirring up animosity in Germany with his views on Aryan superiority. Race relations certainly hadn’t improved dramatically in America in the four years since Tolan won gold, but both the media and the government saw Owens’ victory as a triumphant snub against Hitler — and on the dictator’s native soil yet.

“It wasn’t about what this African-American sprinter achieved so much as it was a slap at Hitler,” Jones says. “It was like what [boxer] Joe Louis did by beating Max Schmeling, and roughly the same period of history.”

Jones refers to the 1938 match in which Louis KO’d German pugilist Max Schmeling. The boxing ring had become a political stage. 

“It was an unfortunate matter of timing with Eddie Tolan,” Jones says. 

During his lifetime, Owens was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976 and was included in the Olympic Order that same year.

After his death in 1980, Owens’ awards snowballed. President George H.W. Bush posthumously conferred the Congressional Gold Medal; two postage stamps were issued to commemorate him; a 1984 Emmy-winning film, The Jesse Owens Story was aired — another theatrical movie, Race began filming last summer; Ohio State University dedicated Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium in 2001; and the USA Track & Field inaugurated the Jesse Owens Award in 1981.

In his hometown of Oakville, Ala., city officials designated Jesse Owens Memorial Park in the athlete’s honor.

There’s a park in Detroit named after Tolan, too: the Edward Tolan Playfield, at I-75 and Mack Avenue. It was named so in 1968, a year after his death. But there’s not much in the way of signage paying homage to Tolan. However, a 1968 photograph in the archives of the Detroit Historical Museum depicts a large sign reading: “Edward Tolan Playfield/City of Detroit/Parks & Recreation.”

Tolan’s honors were almost all awarded posthumously. The Michigan House and Senate memorialized him in a 1967 resolution a month after his death. Although he was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 1958, he wasn’t included in the U-M Athletic Hall of Honor until 1980. Two years later, he was inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame.

At Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Tolan is remembered in the ongoing exhibition And Still We Rise: Our Journey Through African American History and Culture, where a pair of Tolan’s track shoes and some of his medals are on display. The museum also has in its archives two photographs from the ’20s showing Tolan and his Cass Tech track teammates. All were donated by June Tolan Brown, Tolan’s sister.

For all his travails, Tolan didn’t complain, and he remained modest.

“He was never bitter,” Jones says.

“One of the articles I read about the 1932 Olympics said he was busy getting autographs of other people because he was so enamored of these athletes. 

“But he may have been the greatest one of them all there.”

 

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