{ subscribe_url:'//blogs.loc.gov/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/folklife.php' }

Collection Spotlight: William H. Dillard Wins Olympic Gold

London, summer, 1948. All eyes were on the first Olympic Games held since 1936. After years of war, representatives from around the world met in venues like the track field stadium, the swimming pool and the boxing ring, instead of on the battlefield.

At Wembley Stadium, six runners crouched on the track for the finals of the 100-meter dash, hurling themselves forward at the sound of the gun. Just over 10 seconds after they began, it was over—and one of them was declared the “fastest man alive.” The race was so close that to discern who crossed the line first defied the naked eye, and for the first time in history, a photograph was used to declare the winner. The photo finish made it clear: William Harrison Dillard had won gold.

Photo finish of the 100-meter dash at the 1948 Olympic games, won by Harrison Dillard–Also running are E. McDonald Bailey, Alastair McCorquodale, Lloyd Berrington LaBeach, Barney Ewell, and Mel Patton. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, //www.loc.gov/item/95507066/.

The speed of Dillard’s winning time is hard to fathom, particularly for those of us who might run just a little more slowly. But his feat is all the more mind-boggling because, just three years earlier, Dillard had been dodging mortar fire while in combat in Italy as part of the 92nd Infantry Division, a segregated unit known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.”

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Dillard attended East Technical High School—the same high school that, eight years before, the legendary Jesse Owens had attended. Graduating in 1941, Dillard went to Baldwin Wallace College on a track scholarship, and made it through most of his sophomore year before he was drafted. Following basic training at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, he was sent to the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia to attend the Advanced Specialized Training Program (ASTP), and then transferred to the 92nd Infantry Division, stationed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.

Dillard’s friends and comrades William Perry and Dial Hewlitt, Sr. in Italy. A. William Perry Collection, Veterans History Project American Folklife Center, AFC2001/001/51117.

For Dillard and his fellow soldiers in the 92nd, life as an African American in uniform brought challenges even before they reached combat overseas. In his oral history interview, Dillard discusses the harassment that he experienced traveling through the segregated south while on the train to Fort Huachuca. Luckily, he had comrades at his back, some of whom, like Dial Hewlitt and William Perry, were also from Cleveland.

By late 1944, Dillard and the rest of the 92nd had reached Italy, where they were put into combat at Viareggio. For the next six months, they slowly advanced north, liberating small Italian towns as they went. Dillard’s memories of his time in combat are of mortar fire, minefields, and the bravery of his comrades, including the Japanese American soldiers in the 92nd. He also recalls the Italian civilians they encountered: their villages and homes decimated, many had to beg the American servicemen for food. On the streets of Milan, a cluster of women approached Dillard, asking to touch his skin—clearly, it was the first time they had ever seen an African American.

William Dillard in his home, Shaker Heights, OH [2008]. William Dillard Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, AFC2001/00/57895.

With the end of the war, Dillard’s focus turned from sheer survival back to running. While stationed in Europe during the occupation, awaiting transfer home, he won four gold medals at the GI Olympics. At the 1948 Olympics in London, he failed to qualify for the high hurdles competition—though he had trained as hurdler—but wound up winning not only the 100-meter dash, but also the 4 x 100-relay. Four years later, at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, he won the 110-meter hurdles as well as another relay—making him a four-time Olympic gold medalist, just like his idol and schoolmate Jesse Owens.

Arguably, grit and resilience are defining characteristics of Olympic athletes. As modern press coverage makes clear, many Olympians have overcome formidable challenges to make it to the Games. But far fewer have survived the rigors and deprivation of combat only to arrive at the medals podium a mere three years later. Hats off to William Dillard for this feat of mental and physical strength—as well as to other American veteran Olympians, seven of whom are participating in this year’s Games, nearly all of them doing so through the Army’s World Class Athlete Program.

Go Team USA!

For more collections relating to the “Buffalo Soldiers” of the 92nd Infantry Division, visit our online web exhibit Experiencing War.






Frederick Douglass: “I Am A Man”

This blog post is the second of two about the abolitionist Frederick Douglass (celebrating his 200th birthday) and part of a series called “Hidden Folklorists,” which examines the folklore work of surprising people, including people better known for other pursuits. The first post, “Frederick Douglass: Free Folklorist,” is available at this link. The 1850s brought new […]

Take Note! Court Reporters and Captioners Transcribe Interviews for Veterans History Project

The following is a guest blog post by April Weiner, Foundation Manager at National Court Reporters Foundation (NCRF). Veterans History Project (VHP) is very grateful for the long-time participation of the National Court Reporters Association and Foundation in their work to conduct and transcribe interviews.  While VHP does not require interviews to be transcribed, the […]

Edward Avery McIlhenny: Spicy Folklorist

This blog post about the naturalist, ornithologist, and hot sauce innovator E. A. McIlhenny is part of a series called “Hidden Folklorists,” which examines the folklore work of surprising people, including people better known for other pursuits. In preparing this post, I was greatly aided by Shane K. Bernard, the archivist at Avery Island in Louisiana. Edward Avery […]

Kumbaya: History of an Old Song

In honor of African American History Month, we thought we’d present a classic article from Folklife Center News. This one concerns the early history of the African American spiritual “Kumbaya,” also known by other titles such as “Kum Ba Yah,” “Come By Yuh,” and “Come By Here.”  In the years since this article was first published, […]

Frederick Douglass: Free Folklorist

This blog post about the abolitionist Frederick Douglass is part of a series called “Hidden Folklorists,” which examines the folklore work of surprising people, including people better known for other pursuits. This is part one of a two-part article, part two, “Frederick Douglass: ‘I Am a Man,’” can be found at the link. I have often […]

Botkin Lectures to Go!

The following is a guest post from AFC Folklife Specialist Nancy Groce. Botkin Lectures to Go! Learn More About Folklife, Ethnomusicology, and Oral History through the American Folklife Center’s Online Resources Have you always wanted to know more about folklore? Do you regret not taking that ethnomusicology course in college? Does finding out more about […]

Photos From AFC’s Alan Jabbour Legacy Event

  On January 18, 2018, AFC sponsored a special event in our Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series.  Alan Jabbour, 1942 – 2017: His Legacy in Folklife and Traditional Music brought together speakers who worked closely with Alan to examine the contributions he made during his career to cultural documentation, the promotion of traditional music, and […]