Britain’s first Black Olympic medal winner – but Harry Edward’s memoir nearly went unpublished

After being interned in a prisoner-of-war camp, Harry Edward won bronze medals for Britain in both the 100m and 200m at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, making history; after Edward’s death in 1973, his unpublished autobiography sat in an archive in New Orleans – but his remarkable story is now being told…

By Philip Barker

By any measure, Olympian Harry Francis Victor Edward could be said to have had a remarkable life.

He was certainly a remarkable athlete, who won two medals for Great Britain over a century ago at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics.

His autobiography had languished unpublished for half a century in an American library until discovered by documentary film maker and historian Neil Duncanson and finally published, over a century after Edward graced the athletics track.

‘When I Passed the Statue of Liberty, I Became Black,’ is the astonishing document of Edward’s life in his own words.

He was born in Germany to parents who had emigrated from Dominica in the West Indies in search of work.

As a schoolboy before the First World War, Harry had demonstrated a prodigious talent for athletics and even ran at the stadium built in anticipation of Berlin hosting the 1916 Olympics.

As WW1 erupted, Edward was interned as an ‘alien’ in a German camp at Ruhleben on the outskirts of the German capital.

He was eventually repatriated when the conflict came to an end, and joined the Polytechnic Harriers in London to resume his athletic career.

“It was sport again which provided me with an opportunity to emerge as an individual and express my philosophy of international scholarship and brotherhood,” Edward wrote.

He was selected for the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. The book has some wonderful photographs from his own archive, showing informal pictures behind the scenes at the Opening Ceremony and other episodes from his life.

He won bronze at both 100m and 200m, the latter despite an agonising pulled tendon.

Before retirement from the sport, he also enjoyed further success at the AAAs and was presented to King George V,

Invitations also came to compete in the United States and he decided to emigrate.

“Upon my setting foot on the soil of the United States of America, I learned very soon that among all the classifications given me, the designation “Negro” was the most significant,” Edward wrote.

Later, he became the administrative director of the famed Theater of Harlem as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration Project.

He worked with Orson Welles who directed a production of Macbeth with a cast of African Americans.

After the Second World War, he was also a leading figure with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), which took him to Greece and Germany and later to Korea and Vietnam.

Yet his chronicle of a fascinating life was so nearly not published.

“You’ve led an interesting life but I’m afraid that the book doesn’t seem to me too interesting,” said one literary agent in a rejection letter.

“Perhaps this is due to so much of the book dealing with events in the past and also a great deal of detail which doesn’t at this time seem very important.”

Harry Edward died in 1973 and his manuscript lay unpublished in the library of the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans, awaiting someone who appreciated its true worth.

That someone was Duncanson, an acclaimed documentary filmmaker researching an updated and expanded version of “The Fastest Men on Earth”, his chronicle of the Olympic 100m champions.

He describes it as a ‘lost memoir’.

This edited version adds wonderful photographs drawn from the Edward archive, many probably not seen for over a century.

When I Passed the Statue of Liberty, I Became Black, by Harry Edward, edited by Neil Duncanson, is published by Yale University Press London, price £18.99.

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