Many men are known for one significant feat before transitioning to the great beyond. But Ralph Harold Metcalfe is not your average man. For a time, he was called “the fastest man on Earth” for good reason.
Metcalfe had Marie Attaway and Clarence Metcalfe as parents from May 30, 1910. They were a seamstress and a stockyard worker respectively. Cash was hard to come by so the family moved to the South Side of Chicago in hopes of greater prospects during the great migration from the south.
The Atlanta, Georgia native was enrolled at Chicago’s Tilden Technical School in 1930 and by 1936 had received a bachelor of philosophy degree from Marquette University. Aside from his passion for studies, Metcalfe was built for racing.
He began a long and successful career as a track athlete in high school where a coach, spotting his athletics ability, counseled him. “I was told by my coach that as a black person I’d have to put daylight between me and my nearest competitor,” Metcalfe told the Tribune, adding “I forced myself to train harder so I could put that daylight behind me.”
It was while on scholarship at Marquette University in Milwaukee that Metcalfe “equaled the world record in both the 100- and 200-meter dashes” and earned “the fastest man on Earth” tag.
At the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Metcalfe won a bronze medal in the 200-meter dash and picked silver in the 100-meter race after a photo finish.
At the Berlin Olympics in 1936, he and Jesse Owens were on the winning relay team, a victory Owens credited to Metcalfe. “It was the congressman who created a 7-yard gap between the U.S. team and the competing teams in the 400-meter relay, and not one could ever catch up with us,” Owens told the Tribune years later. He also placed second in the 100-meter dash, pipped by Owens who won gold.
Metcalfe retired from competitive sports in 1936, and accepted to teach political science as well as coach at Xavier University of New Orleans. In time, he developed five national champions in track and field.
He served in World War II in the U.S. Army Transportation Corps from 1942 to 1945, where he became first lieutenant and earned the Legion of Merit for his physical education training program.
After World War II, Metcalfe returned to Chicago in 1945 to become director of the civil rights department of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations. He also headed the Illinois State Athletic Commission.
Metcalfe married Madalynne Fay Young in 1947 birthing Ralph Metcalfe, Jr. He had earned an M.A. in physical education from the University of Southern California in 1939.
In 1949 he won election as a Chicago alderman before serving in the U.S. Congress, where he was co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus.
As a U.S. congressman, in 1972, he broke with his longtime ally Mayor Richard J. Daley over police brutality inflicted upon African Americans yet ignored by both the City Hall and the Chicago Police Department.
Metcalfe elevated race above local party interests and in the process risked his political career. “I’m willing to pay whatever political consequences I have to, but frankly, I don’t think there will be any.… In the caucus we have decided to put the interests of black people first—above all else, and that means even going against our party or our political leaders if black interests don’t coincide with their positions,” he said.
Determined to safeguard the interests of African Americans, Metcalfe also sponsored several resolutions to declare February as Black History Month.
Metcalfe’s congressional career ended when he died on October 10, 1978, of an apparent heart attack aged sixty-eight. It was only a month before his almost certain re-election to a fifth term.
During his career in track, Metcalfe equaled or bettered 13 world records. He is an inductee of the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame. His name is also on the Ralph H. Metcalfe Federal Building on Jackson Boulevard.