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John Woodruff Scrapbooks

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In 1936, University of Pittsburgh student John Woodruff became an international name after his gold medal-winning race at the racially charged and controversial Berlin Olympics. The materials in this collection highlights Woodruff’s athletic career. Digital reproductions of the scrapbook are available online.

About John Woodruff

John Woodruff was born July 15, 1915 in Connellsville, Pennsylvania. He was the son of hardworking laborers and the grandson of former Virginia slaves. Growing up, Woodruff excelled academically and athletically and was awarded a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh upon finishing high school. At the time, college was Woodruff’s only option as he graduated high school during the Great Depression and the very few businesses hiring did not welcome negro workers.

When Woodruff arrived on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus in 1935, he had only 25¢ in his pocket and boarded at the YMCA in the Hill District. To cover the cost of his living expenses, Woodruff got a job cleaning up Pitt Stadium after football games and doing grounds maintenance on campus. He excelled in track events at Pitt, winning medals at state and national levels. At the end of his freshman year, Woodruff was persuaded by his coach to try out for the Olympic team at the Olympic Trials that summer. He placed first in the 800-meter race.

In August of 1936, John Woodruff found himself in Berlin, Germany, as one of the few black athletes competing. Also representing the United States was Jesse Owens, who famously took home four gold medals by the end of the Olympic Games. Woodruff’s moment of greatness came during the 800-meter event. Less than halfway through the race, Woodruff became boxed in by the other competitors, unable to advance and unwilling to risk disqualification by fouling another runner if he attempted to break free. In a maneuver that has been called, “the most daring move seen on a track,” Woodruff came to a complete stop before starting again. His six-foot-three-inch stature and nine-foot stride, which had earned him the nickname “Long John,” appeared to eat up the distance between Woodruff and the finish line as he came up from behind to take first place and win the gold medal. In that moment, Woodruff joined the group of African American athletes who crushed Hitler’s theory of the superior Aryan race at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.

After the Olympics, Woodruff returned to the University of Pittsburgh where he competed for the track team, breaking records even as he continued to face racism and segregation. He graduated in 1939 with a Bachelor's degree in sociology and joined the U.S. Army in 1941 where he served in both WWII and the Korean War before retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1957.

John “Long John” Woodruff died on October 30, 2007 at the age of 92. His Olympic gold medal remains on display in the Hillman Library at the University of Pittsburgh.

 

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