By Amanda Hurley
Joggers and bikers huffing and puffing on the new 3.2 mile Malden River Loop may draw inspiration from a Malden athlete who faced both Jim Crow and Adolf Hitler as she pursued her passion for running.
Louise Stokes, a Malden native, is considered the first African-American woman to qualify for an Olympic team. Earlier this summer, the bike loop – which runs along the Malden River and spans three cities, Malden, Everett and Medford— was dedicated to Stokes and former clerk magistrate of Malden District Court, Joseph Croken.
Malden City Councillor-at-Large Stephen Winslow conceived of the Malden River Loop project and enlisted the help of graphic artist Elena Martinez of Artfort Design Studio in August of 2019. Martinez recalled that she and Winslow “met at the Joy of Biking Sculpture near Anthony’s” and chatted as they walked the trail.
Winslow was “inspired by the chance interactions – just a friendly hi or wave of the hand – that might happen during your time on the trail and the ever-changing landscape of buildings to gardens to open fields and sport facilities,” Martinez said in an email. Winslow shared a detailed map he created for the Malden River Loop, which begins and ends right off the Northern Strand Trail, south of Medford street in Malden. At only 3.2 miles, as Martinez points out, you can walk, run or bike the entire loop on your lunch break.
“When Winslow described the project, at the core of it was to honor Joe Croken’s legacy of being friendly and fair everywhere he went. He would be frequently seen using bike/running paths in Boston with a smile,” said Martinez.
To honor Maldonians for their historical legacy in sports, Louise Stokes was selected as a co-dedication for her ground-breaking selection and participation in USA Olympic teams. Martinez designed the Malden River Loop signs, which are posted at various spots on the trail, guiding visitors and introducing these dedications.
“Steve was so excited to include Louise Stokes as part of the dedication. She has a wonderful story,” said Karen Buck, president of the Friends of the Malden River, who suggested Stokes to Winslow. “I stumbled on her story as it was posted on the Malden High School website many years ago – maybe 6-8 years ago. And then, while waiting in Logan Airport – there are plaques commemorating historical figures – and there she was. Steve was so excited to include her after reading her story of running along the train tracks, beating all the boys!”
Louise Stokes Fraser (Oct. 27, 1913 – March 25, 1978) was born and raised in Malden. She started running while a junior high student here.
“They chased her, they chased her, they chased her until they couldn’t catch her anymore, they couldn’t make fun of her anymore. The rest is history,” said Stokes’ son, Wilfred “Wolfie” Fraser Jr., who grew up in Malden and now lives in Maryland, during an exclusive interview with Neighborhood View.
When Stokes first started running with Onterora Track Club, as a middle-schooler at Beebe Junior High School, her coach took interest in her. “I know he spoke to my grandmother … and assured her that things would go as smooth as they possibly could and that he would look out for her, because she was so young,” Fraser said.
From there, it was one win after another for the “Malden Meteor,” who excelled in both sprint and jumping events. In 1931, when Stokes was a junior at Malden High School, she competed at the Mayor’s Day track meet and won the James Michael Curley Cup for the best women’s performance, and additionally set the New England record of 12.6 seconds in the 100 meters dash. Later that year, she tied for the world record in the standing broad jump, jumping eight feet, five and three quarter inches.
These achievements caught the attention of the Olympic Committee and by 1932, Stokes was invited to participate in the Olympic Trials at Northwestern University. Having finished third in the 100-meters, she secured her place on the women’s 4 × 100-meter relay team, and became, along with teammate Tidye Pickett, the first African-American women selected to compete in the Olympics.
Stokes and Pickett ultimately did not compete in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, as they were replaced last minute by white athletes. So, the town of Malden would raise money to get Stokes to Berlin for the 1936 games. As Fraser said, “There was the church, and there was the Onterora track coach who said, ‘These girls need some assistance to go to Germany’ and that’s what they did, they started raising money. The NAACP raised some money to cover their expenses. I don’t know the exact amount, but I heard about $800 or $900. Back then, you know, that was a lot of money.”
The documentary “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice: The Untold Story of 18 African Americans who Defied Jim Crow and Adolf Hitler to Compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics,” (both a book and a film, in which Fraser makes an appearance), highlights the unfair treatment these athletes experienced at the Berlin games. Several moments stand out: the semi-final race in which Pickett fell and broke her foot and how both Pickett and Stokes were then replaced last minute by white athletes. Fraser explains, “Pickett broke her [foot] going over the hurdle. In the U.S. the hurdles were free, in other words, once you hit them, they tip over. In Germany, they nail them down so they can’t move, and she didn’t know that,” so she tripped.
As to why Stokes was replaced, he said, “The Olympic coach [George Vreeland] was very good friends with Avery Brundage [president of the American Olympic Association, later president of the International Olympic Committee] who was a Nazi sympathizer and had sent word down that he wanted girls of color and the Jewish girls off the Olympic relay team.” Jesse Owens, who would go down in history for his four gold medals won at the Berlin Olympics, was already having a lot of wins, and Brundage didn’t want to encourage the Black community any further.
“It was bad enough they had to promote one Black athlete, they didn’t want to have to promote another one, especially a woman,” said Fraser. So while Stokes was on the team, she was not allowed to compete in the finals and would not get the chance to take home a medal. There would be no option to compete again in 1940, as the Olympic Games that year would be cancelled due to World War II. Fraser is clear that his mother knew this was prejudice, and nothing to do with her skill. “She was not a happy camper. You could see it in her eyes, the hurt, you could see the pain, you could see all of that. But she never complained, she never spoke ill of anything.”
“But when she got back home (to Malden) they knew what happened, they knew that she was removed from the race, they knew that the racism wasn’t gonna stop, but they celebrated her and her accomplishments,” says Fraser. In fact, when she returned to Malden, the city threw her a ticker tape parade; people threw confetti from buildings, the mayor went by in his car, he said. This was in contrast to many of the Black Olympians who did not receive a warm welcome upon return. “A couple of the Olympic gold medal winners from Chicago, came home, and they had to wear their Olympic jackets to keep warm in the streets,” Fraser said.
National recognition would come to Stokes only decades later. “When the United States team came home, and everybody celebrated all the Olympic athletes, they invited just the white athletes to the White House. That was rectified In 2016, when we all went back to the White House and President Obama gave (the 18 African-American Olympians) recognition. The families of the athletes, the people closest to them, were able to see some closure, so to speak,” said Fraser as he searched for the official White House photograph and reminisced about chatting with Obama in the moments before.
“If you can try to imagine being a person of color in 1936. To learn to survive, period, was a milestone within itself. And she excelled.” Fraser was asked how he feels about the Malden River Loop dedication. “I didn’t know about the Malden river all my life — I didn’t know it was there,” Fraser mused. “It’s been a long time coming. Once you grow up with something like this … and then it takes 40 years for people to give her the recognition … you know, It’s nice.” Fraser hopes the dedication and his mother’s legacy will inspire young people, young women of color especially, to get involved in activities, “not just in sports but everything- in school and in the community.”
“Many biographies are hidden from public view; certain people’s potential potency in our history has been stunted due to racism and prejudice against all different types of people. We need to see, read, hear and experience real history over and over again to create curiosity for the truth,” Buck said.
Addendum: Fast Girls: A Novel of the 1936 Women’s Olympic Team by Elise Hooper explores the story of the first integrated Olympic team. This book will be featured for discussion in the next Beyond The Page: A GBH Book Club.
Amanda Hurley is citizen reporter for Neighborhood View, a publication of MATV/UMA. She is a performer, teaching artist and aspiring filmmaker.