American National Biography Online
Johnson, Cornelius Cooper (21 Aug. 1913-15 Feb. 1946), track
and field athlete, was born in Los Angeles, California, the son
of Shadreak Johnson, a plasterer; his mother's name is not known.
The elder Johnson had moved from Raleigh, North Carolina, to
California in 1893 for better economic and social opportunities.
Johnson first competed in organized track and field events at
Berendo Junior High School in Los Angeles. He achieved greater
athletic success as a student at Los Angeles High School, competing
statewide in the sprints and the high jump. His skill as a high
jumper earned him a position on the 1932 U.S. Olympic team. While
only a junior in high school, Johnson tied veteran performers
Robert van Osdel and George Spitz for first place at a height
of 6' 6-5/8' at the 1932 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Championship,
which also served as the Olympic trials.
One of four African Americans representing the United States
in track and field in the 1932 Summer Olympic Games, Johnson
performed admirably before a hometown crowd in Los Angeles, finishing
in a four-way tie for first place at 6' 51/2' with van Osdel,
Duncan McNaughton of Canada, and Simeon Toribo of the Philippines.
Since all four athletes had failed to clear 6' 63/4' in regular
competition, a jump-off was held to determine the gold, silver,
and bronze medalists. As a result of the jump-off, Johnson finished
in fourth place, as McNaughton won the gold, van Osdel the silver,
and Toribo the bronze.
In 1933 Johnson graduated from high school and entered Compton
Junior College in Pasadena, California. That same year he captured
the outdoor AAU high jump title, equaling the meet record of
6' 7'. In 1934 he shared the outdoor AAU championship with Walter
Marty, as both athletes topped a new meet record of 6' 8-5/8'.
The following year he soared above all American high jumpers,
winning both the indoor and outdoor AAU titles with a mark of
6' 7'. In 1936 Johnson finished second in a jump-off against
Ed Burke in the indoor AAU championship, after both performers
completed regular competition at 6' 81-5/16'. In the outdoor
AAU championship, which also served as the 1936 Olympic trials,
both Johnson and Dave Albritton of Ohio State University set
a world record with jumps of 6' 93/4'.
Berlin, Germany, then the capital of the National Socialist
(Nazi) Third Reich, hosted the 1936 Summer Olympic Games. By
that time anti-Semitic public policies had systematically removed
Jews from nearly every aspect of German life. American participation
in the "Nazi Olympics" was hotly debated in the United States;
African Americans in particular were divided over sending athletes
to Germany. While some maintained that a boycott of African-American
athletes would illuminate the racially discriminatory practices
of the United States, others argued that a triumphant demonstration
of African-American athletic prowess would powerfully undermine
both American and German racial insolence. The United States
sent to the 1936 Olympics nineteen African Americans--twelve
track and field performers, including two women; five boxers;
and two weightlifters. Johnson won the gold medal in the high
jump, setting an Olympic record performance of 6' 8' and leading
an American sweep of the medals. Other African-American trackmen,
led by Jesse Owens's quadruple gold medal feat, won every running
event from the 100 to the 800 meters, the 400-meter relay, and
the long jump. By capturing silver and bronze medals in many
of the same events, they discredited Nazi racial theories but
accomplished little in dispiriting American racism. Johnson,
rather than Owens, was the victim of Adolf Hitler's most pointed
snub. After honoring German and Finnish medal winners, in accordance
with his belief in Aryan superiority, the Nazi leader left the
stadium before the conclusion of the high jump and did not congratulate the African-American medalists.
After the 1936 Olympics Johnson's dominance over the high jump
diminished rapidly. In 1937 he finished fourth in the 1937 indoor
AAU championships, won by Ed Burke, and he lost to Albritton
in the outdoor AAU contest. Johnson, who later competed for the
New York City Grand Street Boys Association, tied with Lloyd
Thompson for the 1938 indoor AAU title at 6' 6'. After retiring
from the high jump, he became a letter carrier for the U.S. Post
Office in Los Angeles, and in 1945 he joined the U.S. Merchant
Marine and served as a baker on the Santa Cruz. The following
year Johnson developed bronchial pneumonia aboard ship; he died
before the ship reached the San Francisco harbor.
Although other aspects of his life may have been affected by
discrimination and prejudice, Johnson was not denied opportunities
to compete in track and field--except for the Nazi Olympics--because
of his race. Unlike major league baseball and professional football,
track and field had afforded African-American performers the
opportunity to participate since the late nineteenth century.
Although African Americans were denied membership in exclusive
amateur athletic organizations, such as the New York Athletic
Club, they either formed their own athletic clubs--such as the
New York City Grand Street Boys Association--or competed on the
teams of predominately white colleges and universities in the
North, Midwest, and West. Only in the South, where the AAU recognized
and upheld the region's discriminatory practices, were African
Americans denied participation in track and field meets. Johnson
and fellow African-American trackmen made their first significant
impact on the sport internationally in the 1936 Olympics, and
African Americans have remained the mainstay of American track
and field superiority.
A recent biographical account is Bob Oates, "If Anybody Was
Snubbed by Hitler, It Was Cornelius Johnson," Los Angeles Times,
22 July 1984. Statistical information on Johnson's AAU national
championship performances is in Frank G. Menke, The Encyclopedia
of Sports, 4th rev. ed. (1969); his Olympic achievements are
chronicled in David Wallechinsky, The Complete Book of the Summer
Olympics (1996). For Johnson's place in the history of track
and field, consult Roberto L. Quercetani, A World History of
Track and Field Athletics (1964). The best English-language account
of the 1936 Olympic Games, which discusses Johnson's gold medal
performance, is Richard D. Mandell, The Nazi Olympics (1971).
David K. Wiggins examined the debate among African Americans
over participation in the 1936 Olympic Games in "The 1936 Olympic
Games in Berlin: The Response of America's Black Press," Research
Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 54 (1983): 279-82. For the impact
of racism and inopportunity on Johnson, as well as those of many
of the African-American trackmen of the late 1920s and 1930s,
see William J. Baker, Jesse Owens: An American Life (1986). A
general survey of African-American track and field athletes is
Arthur R. Ashe, Jr., A Hard Road to Glory--Track and Field: The
African-American Athlete in Track and Field (1988, 1993). Obituaries
include the Baltimore Afro-American and the Chicago Defender,
both 23 Feb. 1946.
Adam R. Hornbuckle
Adam R. Hornbuckle. "Johnson, Cornelius Cooper";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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