As the Winter Olympic Games continue in Sochi, Russia, I can’t stop thinking about a former Colorado Springs man who personified the Olympic ideal that values participation above winning.
The Olympic creed says: “The most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.”
That certainly describes the life of Dolphus Stroud, whose quest to reach the Olympics took a Herculean effort and turned into an ordeal that fell painfully short of the finish line nearly a century ago.
I was reminded of Stroud’s Olympic trials and tribulations by my friend Lucy Bell, a retired teacher who has researched and given frequent talks about the experience of blacks in Colorado Springs, the overt racism and hardships they faced and overcame.
Dolphus Stroud’s life epitomized that struggle.
But first, a little about the pioneering Stroud family, which is particularly compelling.
The family’s story starts in 1910 when Kimbal Dolphus Stroud and his wife, Lulu, a Creek Indian, packed their children and left their home in Oklahoma to escape racial discrimination. However they were disappointed to find similar conditions in Colorado Springs just a year after the death of founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer, who abhored slavery and segregation.
K.D. Stroud, as he was known, was a minister, a teacher and was studying law in Oklahoma but was unable to get a teaching job in Colorado Springs. He ended up hauling ash and then shoveling coal at the Rock Island Railroad yards, in what is now the Roswell neighborhood near Fillmore Street and Cascade Avenue, for seven cents a ton, seven days a week.
The Strouds had 11 children and it was a struggle for him to feed the family. Their pain was compounded by the relentless racism the children faced in their predominantly white North Walnut Street neighborhood and at Bristol Elementary School. (When the Stroud children were pelted daily with rocks, the principal’s solution was to release Dolphus and his brother a few minutes early from class to give them a head start against their tormenters!)
Still, the Strouds instilled a work ethic and desire to achieve in their children and all 11 eventually went to college with six graduating including four who earned degrees at Colorado College.
K.D. eventually built a hauling business and trucking company before going blind around 1930 and his death in 1938. Lulu loved music and the arts and eventually became the first nonwhite member of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center before her death in 1953. These stories were documents in John Holley’s excellent 1990 book “The Invisible People of the Pikes Peak Region.”
The Stroud story alone would make an inspirational movie. But the real blockbuster would be the telling of the saga of Dolphus, the third-oldest of K.D. and Lulu’s children.
His achievements alone were noteworthy: a world-class distance runner who trained by running to the summit of Pikes Peak and won headlines in 1928 for his record 2 hour, 53 minute marathon roundtrip (which would rank among the best times ever); a gifted scholar who became the first black elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society at Colorado College, where he graduated cum laude in 1931; earned a master’s degree at the University of Mexico where he wrote, in Spanish, his thesis on the history of blacks in America.
But what amazed me most about Dolphus Stroud was his quest to win a spot on the 1928 U.S. Olympic track team.
Dolphus told the story in an oral history he gave before his death in 1975. His account was published in the Gazette Telegraph on July 30, 1978.
He described being inspired to run by a Colorado Springs High School teacher who encouraged him to use athletics as an avenue to greater acceptance in a racist world.
Even greater inspiration came when he was denied a spot on the school track team.
Enraged, he blurted out to the team: “You watch. Someday I’ll be on the Olympics.”
They laughed at the thought but it became a goal that drove Stroud. His teacher encouraged him to begin training on his own and soon he was running up Pikes Peak regularly. He graduated high school in 1925 with honors but didn’t immediately go to college, instead taking time to work and earn money.
And he continued to run. He became so good at distances that he qualified to run in June 17, 1928, race in Denver. Winners would take a train to Boston a few weeks later for a July 6-7 meet that would pick the U.S. Olympic track team that would compete in the summer games in Amsterdam.
“I won that race,” Stroud said in the 1978 story. “No one could have beaten me that day. I was going to Boston. I was representative for the Rocky Mountain Division. I was proud to have a chance to represent America in the 5,000-meter race. I was on my first lap to my Olympic dream. I was headed for Boston and Amsterdam.”
His celebration was short-lived, however, when officials told him he would not be allowed to ride the train with the white athletes. He could run in Boston only if he could find his own transportation.
He told his teacher he would not be denied his chance for Olympic glory:
“I’m going to Boston! I’m going to hitchhike! I’m not beaten yet,” Stroud said.
His teacher tried to dissuade him, reminding him that poor roads, summer heat and racism would make the 1,765-mile trip impossible on foot.
“This is my dream and no one can keep me here,” Stroud said.
His plan to walk and hitchhike made headlines here and in Denver: “Springs marathon runner will hike to Olympic test.”
The Gazette dubbed him the “Black Hope of the Rocky Mountain Region.”
One newspaper predicted:
“The Colorado Springs colored boy works better at a lower altitude . . . Sea level should see him at his best . . . If perseverance will do it, Dolphus Stroud will be the American entry in the 5,000 meter coming Olympic race.”
At 4 a.m. on June 25, wearing a “Denver to Olympia” sign and carrying a backpack, canteen of water and a golf club for protection, Stroud began walking to Boston.
“In my pocket was a precious $10 bill,” Stroud said, describing his plan to survive buying just milk, bread, peanuts and graham crackers.
Stroud figured he needed to average 180 miles a day while spending just a penny a day to make it. His route took him northeast through Omaha, Neb., to Chicago then east to Cleveland and Boston.
“In 1928 there was very little automobile travel on dirt roads,” Stroud recalled. “Sometimes I walked 20 miles and more before seeing a car going my way. I rationed my water sparingly.”
In cities he searched street gutters for small coins.
“Once I felt rich for a day when I found a 50-cent piece,” he said. “Some days I bought 2-cent packages of peanuts and chewed them for a long time to make the taste last.”
About a week into his journey, he grew hungry and weary and he recalled what his parents told their children when they didn’t have enough food.
“I recalled a saying in the Stroud family which we often used in hard times: When there isn’t enough food, it’s a good time to fast and pray.”
Besides hunger and thirst, Stroud said he endured heat, swarms of mosquitoes, winds, storms and racism along the way.
“One day, a rain came to relieve the heat. Then my problem was to keep dry. My clothing became soaking wet. The roads became grease. I slipped and fell. My pack grew heavier. Mud and water oozed through my shoes and between my toes. I became tired, hungry and sleepy.”
Walking into a small town in the rain, he prayed someone would take him in. He was wrong. All he got was taunts of “Hello Sambo” and threats. He ended up sleeping in a cemetery on a large monument with stone pillars and a roof for shelter.
Word of his epic trek reached Chicago and on July 3 the Daily News published a story about Stroud.
“Motorists had been urged to give the young black a ride,” Stroud said. “As a result, I got more rides. At Cleveland, I found one man who took me almost to Boston.”
Stroud said he crossed the Charles River and reached Cambridge just six hours before his race.
He filled out forms, was issued a red, white and blue track suit and tried to rest his blistered feet.
Soon, the track announcer called to the starting line the six men competing in the 5,000-meter race.
“I and five white runners began to limber up on the track,” Stroud said. “This was the culmination of all those years of early morning runs. This was the reward for all those long, searing climbs to the summit of Pikes Peak.
“This was the end of that torturous pack on my back. I was broke and hungry, but there would be no more budgeting a cent a mile for food.”
In his mind, Stroud said he vowed to forever silence the jeers from the high school track team when he vowed to become an Olympian.
“I dug my toes into the starting line,” he recalled. “A loud bang reverberated from the signal gun.
“I froze at the sound. All five white runners shot into action. My start was slow but I knew I could catch up. I had to. I tried to close in on that first lap but I kept falling back.”
He heard cheers from the crowd but he knew he was in trouble.
“I prayed for a miracle,” he said. “After the second lap, I was hopelessly behind but I couldn’t quit.”
Cheers turned to jeers and boos from the crowd.
“I struggled on,” he said.
But as he started his sixth lap, his eyesight failed.
“Everything blurred,” he said. “I was falling. I staggered to the shoulder of the track and fell.”
His Olympic dream had ended in a nightmare.
“I had been a young man with an impossible dream,” he said. “Now I was only a tired heap of black flesh clad in red, white and blue that I would not wear in Amsterdam.”
He struggled to his feet and felt a hand on his shoulder. A stranger asked his name, when he had last eaten, if he had any money or a place to stay. The stranger handed him a note and directed him to the Boston YMCA where he would find food, a bed and help getting a job. (Turned out his benefactor was a white distance runner who had qualified for the Olympic team.)
“There, I caught up with my need for food and rest and money,” he said.
Stroud worked the summer before returning, by train, to Colorado Springs where he registered at Colorado College where he earned academic honors, ran track and joined the foreign relations club. In 2006, Stroud was inducted posthumously into the CC Sports Hall of Fame.
The whole story became real to me as I stood in the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum last week with director Matt Mayberry in front of an exhibit that includes the history of the Stroud family.
There, in a display case, was Dolphus Stroud’s scrapbook, open to the page bearing his official ticket to the 1928 Olympic trial in Harvard Stadium in Boston.
“It’s a remarkable story,” Mayberry said.
I looked at it and mulled Stroud’s final thoughts in that 1978 story:
“I treasure that summer’s rich experience,” he said. “My ‘journey toward Olympus’ became a ‘might-have-been’ and bittersweet memory to trade for new horizons.”
He treasured it? I can’t imagine how I would have reacted.
Consider this anecdote Lucy Bell told me: after graduating with high honors from CC, and going off after graduation to teach in Georgia, Stroud applied for a teaching job at his alma mater only to be rejected and offered instead a janitor’s position!
So I called his daughter, Juanita Stroud Martin, a longtime area social worker, jazz singer and owner, with her husband Greg Johnson, of Black Beat Productions.
What she told me left me even more impressed with Dolphus Stroud.
“He wasn’t bitter,” she said. “In his mind, obstacles became stairsteps.
“It was certainly painful but it didn’t discourage him.”
She told me how he later had the chance to race an Olympic track star from Finland, easily beating him and getting a measure of satisfaction and vindication over his experience in Boston.
“For every bad thing that happened, something good would happen,” she said. “Everything he went through molded and shaped him. And he approached everything with optimism.”
Her father, she said, was many things: a distinguished scholar; a world-class athlete; a writer and pianist.
Stroud eventually settled in Portland and opened a successful warehouse business that he operated until it was destroyed during race riots in the 1960s.
I think his daughter described him best when she said he was a “transcendent soul who overcame obstacles to create and contribute with his life.”
I like that description.
“He had such a loving outlook on life,” Martin said. “He was an inspiration.”