I’m pretty sure most people know the name Jesse Owens, who dominated the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, winning four gold medals.
But what about track legend William “Harrison” Dillard, four-time Olympic Gold Medal Champion?
Harrison Dillard — the only male runner in history to win Olympic gold in both a dash and the high hurdles and a member of the U.S. Army 92nd Infantry, the famed all-black “Buffalo Soldiers” who fought with distinction during World War II — will be laid to rest this week in his native Cleveland, Ohio.
I admit that Harrison Dillard had fallen off my radar, but came back into full view in April 2015, when I was visiting the Baldwin Wallace University campus – on the same day that he was present for the unveiling of his life-size bronze statue. Dillard, 96, was an alumnus of Baldwin Wallace.
That day, I was reminded of how people like Harrison Dillard don’t have household names — how they are not included in the history of our nation that is taught in schools and how it is seemingly not important to know their names.
That stark reality struck me again last week (on the heels of Harrison Dillard’s death), as I watched a television news story about the life of Azellia White. The news station – along with several other media organizations – was reporting Azellia White’s death. One of the news reports started like this:
“Azellia White, one of the nation’s first African American female pilots, earned her pilot’s license just after World War II and found freedom flying in the skies above the Jim Crow South.”
Like Jesse Owens, I am pretty sure the name Bessie Coleman, who soared across the sky as the first African American and the first Native American woman pilot, rings a bell (at least I hope so). And let us not forget that because of racism, she had to earn her license from France’s Fédération Aéronautique Internationale before touring America and Europe. But what about Azellia White?
Well, here’s a tidbit: Azellia White, her Tuskegee Airman husband, Hulon White, and two other Tuskegee Airmen (Ben Stevenson and Elton “Ray” Thomas) created a flight school, delivery service, and airport in the Houston area with a mission to serve the black community during segregation,after World War II.
And here’s a real eye-opener: White died on September 14, and was buried a week later in her native state of Texas. She was 106.
Here’s my question: Why did it take more than two months for national news outlets to figure out who she was?
While I am distraught over the fact that it took so long to acknowledge Azellia White’s legacy, I find comfort in the fact that she was (finally) recognized; and I am heartened by the timeliness of the reports about Harrison Dillard’s death.
For me, this illustrates that while we have made some progress when it comes to inclusion, we still have a long way to go. It reinforces, for me, that structural racism still persists, that people of color are still viewed as “other”, and that there is an unwillingness to view “black history” as American history.
Harrison Dillard’s longtime friend, Ted Theodore, described his death as “a loss for humanity” and said “he was an example for all of us, how to live our lives, with never an unkind word for anyone. He was a champion, a true champion.”
Isn’t it time for us to honor and celebrate all of our champions who have contributed significantly to history in America?