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Harry Edward, an Olympian for Social Change

King George V congratulating H.F.V. Edwards on his winning the 100 years Flat Race at the A.A.A. Championships at Stamford Bridge.

The papers of Harry Edward offer a robust view into the fascinating and awe-inspiring life of an Olympic athlete turned human rights advocate. His exploits made him a success on the field and champion of global cooperation. His papers document his early sports career before and after the First World War, his internment in a German prison camp, and his lifelong career as an aid worker in Greece, Germany, and Vietnam. In addition, an unpublished autobiography, “When I Passed the Statue of Liberty, I Became Black,” provides in his own words his life as an Afro-German immigrant in the United States.

Harry Francis Vincent Edward was born in 1895 in Berlin. He writes in his autobiography that his parent’s marriage “caused a stir in the staid and well-regulated family of [his] grandfather,” but his father was a “tall, imposing, and handsome man, widely known” in Berlin, which served as an international hub in the decades preceding World War I. His father, originally from the Caribbean island of Domenica, had worked on ships as a cabin boy before joining the circus to see the world. His circus travels eventually brought him to Europe, where he worked as an apprentice waiter. It was there that he met Harry’s mother, a piano teacher who came from a large German family. They settled in Berlin where Harry and his sister were born.

Edward first became interested in athletics as a teen. He had read about the site of the ancient Olympic Games recently excavated by German archaeologists the revival of the modern-day Olympics. Edward joined an athletic club and in his first competition finished first and third in his two track events. His initial success fueled his desire to compete and he quickly became popular in many European papers. He received an invitation to participate in an international track meet in Budapest in the summer of 1914. However, a few weeks before the competition, Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, catalyzing world war. The threat of war did not stop the sports meet; Edward recalled the great success of the international track meet featuring top athletes from various European countries, but he juxtaposed the diplomatic nature of his sport with the crowds of protesters in the main streets of the city and their anti-Serbian chanting. A week after the Budapest meet, Germany finally declared war.

Harry’s father was from Domenica, which at that time was a British territory. Although Harry Edward was born and raised in Berlin, this fact made him a British subject. As the war progressed, Germany rounded up all male British subjects of military age as political prisoners. From April 1915 to the end of the war, Edward was detained at the Ruhleben Internment Camp just outside of Berlin. His imprisonment put a stop to his burgeoning career as a track star, but only temporarily. The German authorities allowed the prisoners to handle much of their own internal affairs, and events like intramural competition amongst the prisoners allowed Edward to express himself as an athlete. He was held at the Ruhleben Internment Camp for three years before being liberated. When repatriated, all the prisoners (including Edward) were taken to Leith, Scotland. From there, he made his way to London. With his home country devastated from war, Edward was forced to start over in England.

His familiarity with foreign languages gave him an advantage in England. Edward taught French and German and worked as both the French/German correspondent and accountant for a manufacturing company. While in London, he re-connected with his favorite pastime, track and field. It was there that he joined the Polytechnic Harriers Athletic Club. Edward again made a name for himself as a track star, eventually earning three Amateur Athletic Association championships. His feat earned him personal praise and congratulation from King George V.

Harry Edward and the British Olympic track & field team, 1920.

After proving himself in the Olympic trials, Edward was selected for the British Olympic Team for the Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium. His initial chance to compete for the German team in the 1916 Olympics was dashed by the war, but his chance for redemption had come four years later. Inspired by Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, Edward reveled in both the athletic competition of the games and its social by-product as a means of uniting a war-weary world. In the 100- and 200-meter race, Edward finished third. In his autobiography, he quips that Allen Woodring, the American who won gold in the 200-meter race, came up to Edward afterward and congratulated him, “Harry, that should have been your race!”

Publication of a speech given by Brig. Gen. R.J. Kentish at the Olympic Games. Edward writes that the speech highly influenced him.

It is no doubt that the sportsmanship and camaraderie of the 1920 Olympics and wave of idealism supporting global cooperation made its mark on the young Harry Edward. He would go on to immigrate to the United States and spent much of his life working with the United Nations. In 1969, he penned his autobiography. Although it was never published, it is an inspiring story of a man who stepped outside of his comfort zone to help make the world a better place. His autobiography is a part of his papers, which are housed at the Amistad Research Center.

Images from the Harry Edward papers. Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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