Jill Lepore discusses her
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at noon, at Marsh Chapel’s Robinson Room
Week of 15 February 2002 · Vol. V, No. 23


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How Special Collections archival holdings tell the story of our time
Edward Gourdin: Olympic silver medalist, but a man of firsts

By Amy Dean

He was the 1916 class valedictorian at Stanton High School in Jacksonville, Fla. In 1921, he became the first man in history to make 25 feet in the long jump, and he later won the silver medal in the event, at the 1924 Olympics. He was a track star at Harvard, where he earned a law degree in 1924. He enlisted in the National Guard in 1925 and became the commanding officer of the 372nd Infantry -- a segregated regiment. He rejoined the National Guard after his discharge in 1947 and retired in 1959 with the rank of brigadier general -- a first in Massachusetts for an African-American. In 1958, he was sworn in as the state's first African-American Superior Court justice.


Edward Gourdin competing at a Harvard track meet in the early 1920s.


Edward Orval Gourdin (1897-1966), whose papers, photographs, scrapbooks, and records are housed at Mugar Library's Special Collections, was eulogized as a "scholar, athlete, soldier, judge" on Law Day, May 1, 1997, when his portrait was unveiled in Boston's Old Suffolk County Courthouse.

Gourdin's life of accomplishment and of breaking color barriers wasn't well-known until the Jacksonville, Fla., Times-Union ranked the 100 greatest Jacksonville-area athletes of the 20th century in 1999. Gourdin's achievements were uncovered to reveal a "hidden treasure."

"For a kid who grew up in an impoverished family on Davis Street in Jacksonville," writes Gene Frenette in the Times-Union, "one of nine children born to Walter Holmes Gourdin, a meat-cutter and part Seminole Indian, and an African-American woman named Felicia (née Garvin) -- he sure went far. And not just in the long jump."

A leap from Cambridge to Paris
Yet it is for the long jump that Gourdin -- nicknamed "Ned" -- is immortalized in track and field records. He was the National Amateur Athletic Union's junior 100-yard dash champion and the national pentathlon champion in 1921 and 1922. At the revival of the Harvard-Yale versus Oxford-Cambridge track meet in 1921, Gourdin won the 100-yard dash and set a new world record in the broad jump -- 25 feet, 3 inches -- which remains a Harvard University school record, although the official listing in U.S. Track and Field is 25 feet, 2 inches. "It was considered almost impossible," said the New York Telegram of his world-record jump.

After completing his law exams at Harvard, Gourdin traveled to Paris for the Olympics as the favorite not only to win the broad jump, but also to outleap the world record.

But other accomplishments at the 1924 Olympics overshadowed Gourdin's silver medal win. Paavo Nurmi -- dubbed the "Flying Finn" -- wowed the crowd by winning five gold medals -- three individual and two team -- in seven races in six days. Johnny Weissmuller of the United States -- who would later become Hollywood's most famous Tarzan -- took three swimming gold medals. And the gold medals won by British sprint champions Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell were later chronicled in the 1981 Academy Award-winning film Chariots of Fire.

Although Gourdin had previously cleared 25 feet, his long jump at the Olympics was only 23 feet, 10 inches, giving him second place behind fellow American William Hubbard, whose jump of 24 feet, 5 inches, earned him the gold. In an ironic twist, Gourdin accomplished a long jump of 25 feet, 8 inches, at an exhibition the day after the Olympic final. But it never counted as a world record because the jump occurred at a nonsanctioned event.
"Considering the lack of probable opportunities a black man had back then," says John Tenbroeck, a Jacksonville track and field historian, in the Times-Union story, "his achievements are even more noteworthy. He obviously used his talents to the fullest extent."

Judicious recognition
Gourdin's talents extended well beyond his athletic gifts. His son Edward Jr. recalls that his father's family "was a big supporter of academics. Oftentimes in big, poor families, they'd pick one to be the pioneer. That was him." On winter days, he says, his father would stuff newspapers in his shoes to keep warm while walking to his classes at Harvard.

Gourdin was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1925 and to the federal bar in 1929. But because no law firm offered him a position, he kept his job as a postal clerk -- where he had worked while attending law school -- as he struggled to establish a practice. He became active in politics, first as a Republican and then as a Democrat, which led to relationships with political figures and attorneys in Boston. One, influential lawyer Francis Ford, whose classmate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had named him a U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, encouraged Roosevelt to appoint Gourdin a U.S. attorney -- a position he occupied, save for the years he served in the National Guard, until 1951.

That year, Gourdin was elevated to the bench in Roxbury District Court. A Boston Herald editorial, preserved in his private papers, wrote of his appointment, "The day may come when the fact that a new state appointment is a Negro will cease to be a matter of note. Unfortunately, that is not yet."

On the day in 1958 that he was sworn in as the first African-American on the Massachusetts Superior Court, future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall said, "This swearing-in is doubly important. First, because it is the first of its kind in New England and, secondly, because it represents another step along the road of justice rendered without regard for race or color."

Edward Jr. lobbied for his late father to be honored by having his portrait hung at the Boston courthouse. He is also proud of his father's athletic accomplishments. "When I was in junior high," he says, "I ran the 60-yard dash, and my father was a great supporter. He taught me a lot and was always at the stadium to watch me. I remember kidding around with him one day in 1960 about racing him. He was 62 or 63 at the time, and I was in my mid-20s. We had a dirt road beside our house, probably 150 yards long, and we raced for real. I took off and got a lead on him for the first 25 yards before he whistled by me like I was standing still. I was shocked. He was still fast."

Gourdin's wife, Amalia, met her husband after a Harvard track meet. "I went to watch the meet with two or three girls. We saw Ned win and set the world record and everyone in the crowd was jubilant. He was proud of his accomplishment but struck me as being very shy and mostly interested in his academics. You could tell he put his whole heart into all his efforts. And right there, I knew he would accomplish things."

The Department of Special Collections at Boston University, located in Mugar Memorial Library, is one of the largest repositories of documents, memorabilia, and books chronicling the lives and careers of important writers, artists, performers, and public figures of the past century. The collection, which was started in 1963, includes archival material and rare books dating back to the 16th century. Contemporary archives now contain private papers and artifacts of 2,000 notable 20th-century figures.

These vast holdings offer a rich portrait of our time -- a living history as revealed through the accomplishments and passions of the century's great thinkers, politicians, and personalities -- as well as provide a rich source of research material for future articles, dissertations, and books of history and scholarship. Individual collections include manuscripts and typescripts in all states and drafts, galleys, notes, notebooks, journals, diaries, scrapbooks, reviews, photographs, and personal and professional correspondence, as well as various editions of published works.


15 February 2002
Boston University
Office of University Relations