I'd never heard of Eddie Tolan before seeing this photo for sale on eBay but his story is quite remarkable. Having been born in Denver his family moved east eventually settling in Detroit where Tolan became a track and football star at both Cass Tech and later at the University of Michigan. Legends arise that Tolan was kept off the football team because of his race but others contend that he suffered a knee injury that ended his gridiron days. The fact that he wore a knee brace throughout his career as a sprinter makes the latter story seem more plausible though the former was a reality for the 1920s. The "Midnight Express" as he was dubbed at Michigan set many records at the school and in the Big Ten Conference as well as world records.
After graduating from Michigan in 1932 he did post graduate work at West Virginia State College and prepared for the 1932 Olympics. After finishing second in tryouts to fellow African American Ralph Metcalfe, who later became a U. S. Congressman, he won two Gold Medals at the Los Angeles games, becoming the first black athlete to accomplish the feat.
Hard times followed his Olympic exploits due to the Depression and after stints of joblessness he briefly appeared in Vaudeville before landing a civil service gig in Detroit. He went on to the teach physical education at Irving Elementary in Detroit. He died of a heart attack as a result of kidney failure in 1967.
The photo from 1969 was to commemorate Tolan in a ceremony where another former track star Hayes Jones dedicated an artificial kidney machine to Wayne County General Hospital. Tolan's sisters raised the funds for the machine and one is featured in the Detroit News press photograph.
A Free Press article documented the occasion:
|Detroit Free Press, September 16, 1969|