Archie Williams in Berlin 2
Archie Williams at the Berlin Olympics in 1936
Jesse Owens won four gold medals in Berlin in 1936, and came home to American a hero…for about a week…before he was then treated like any other black American. Unable to find work, he gave up his amateur status and earned a living as an entertainer, most famously sprinting and winning against thoroughbred horses. “People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”

Archie Williams was a teammate of Owens, one of ten black Americans on that 1936 USA team at the Berlin Olympics. And while he didn’t get the fanfare of Owens, Williams was already the owner of the world record time in the 400 meters, and would go on to win the gold medal in the 400 in Berlin. After the Olympics, Williams went on to graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in mechanical engineering, as well as in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Engineering School at Wright-Patterson Field, as well as in meteorology from UCLA.

But as was true for the majority of blacks in America, it was a challenge to get the opportunities to get ahead. Williams was quoted as saying, “When I came home, somebody asked me, ‘How did those dirty Nazis treat you?’ I replied that I didn’t see any dirty Nazis, just a lot of nice German people. And I didn’t have to ride in the back of the bus over there.”

Williams was a graduate of Berkeley with a degree in engineering in a war-time economy that could only be described as heated. But, Williams could not find gainful employment at places like GM or GE that were hiring to keep up with demand, as he explained in the oral history of American Olympians, Tales of Gold.

Those big corporations just weren’t hiring black people. They weren’t, and who else would? Look, I had a job one summer making $5 a week chopping weeds for the East Bay Water Company. Later I thought about working as an engineer for them. And I talked to the guy down there, but he said, “Sorry about that.”

Williams had a passion for planes, and wanted to become a pilot. He eventually got a job “gassing airplanes”, which is essentially fueling the planes, and warming them up. He had to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, but he also got to fly, build up his hours in the air, and get his flying qualifications. And yet, he couldn’t get up that next rung in the career ladder, as he explained. “That was early in 1941. Again, a black guy with a pilot’s license and an instructor’s rating; he’s…well, he’s nothing. Even the guy I worked for couldn’t hire me as a flying instructor. He’d have lost all his business.”

Archie Williams in Tuskegee
Archie Williams (2nd Right) at Tuskegee, 1944
There were apparently very few black pilots in the 1940s, and even fewer opportunities for them in America. But as is often the case, war forces people to look beyond color. The US Army had established a training center for African Americans in Tuskegee, Alabama, where blacks were educated at Tuskegee University and trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field. Williams one day in 1941 heard about the Tuskegee program, and took his pilot’s license and mechanical engineering degree to the Tuskegee Institute.

Williams began his career as a pilot instructor in Alabama, and his first students were the famed Tuskegee Airmen, whose planes were called Red Tails for the color of the tails on their P-47s and P-51s, and who went on to fighting glory in North Africa and Italy.

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Chief Priestess, Aleca Katselli igniting the Sacred Olympic Flame at the Temple of Zeus, from the book,
Chief Priestess, Aleca Katselli igniting the Sacred Olympic Flame at the Temple of Zeus, from the book, “Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Agency”

On August 21, 1964. the Priestesses of the ancient Temple of Zeus in Athens lit the Sacred Olympic Flame in a bowl using the rays of the sun. The torch was then transported to the site of the Ancient Olympics, where King Constantine II of Greece waited for it with IOC President Avery Brundage and Daigoro Yasukawa, President of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee. Chief Priestess, Aleca Katselli lit the Olympic Torch from the sacred flame, handing it to the King, who handed it to the first runner, George Marcellos, who was the Greek 110-yard hurdle champion. And off he went, initiating the torch on a multi-country, multi-continent relay ending in the National Stadium in Tokyo.

Greek hurdler, George Marcello, takes the first leg of the Torch Relay, from the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Agency.
Greek hurdler, George Marcello, takes the first leg of the Torch Relay, from the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Agency.

There is no other way to describe this ceremony – except that it feels Olympian.

This ceremony, wrapped in myth and ceremony, actually emerged out of Nazi Germany. Joseph Goebbels, who was Adolph Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda from 1933, saw the 1936 Berlin Olympics as an opportunity to legitimize the German way in the eyes of the world, that life with Germany, under Germany, was good and glorious. And so Goebbels formed an organizing committee inside his propaganda ministry with the mission to extract, as Daniel Brown wrote in his brilliant book, Boys in the Boat, “the maximum propaganda from the games. No opportunity was to be overlooked, nothing taken for granted.”

Brown went on to write, “at one of those meetings, one of Goebbels’ ministers proposed an entirely new idea – a potent bit of imagery designed to underscore what the Third Reich saw as its ancestral roots in ancient Greece – a torch relay to carry a flame from Olympia in Greece all the way to Berlin.”

And so since 1936, the Olympic Torch Relay has been a permanent fixture in the ritual of the Olympic Games.

See this short clip of