'Races' digs deep into sprinter Harry Jerome's disturbing family history
Author Valerie Jerome sheds light on the racial trauma her family endured
Races: The trials & triumphs of Canada's Fastest Family
by Valerie Jerome
Valerie Jerome's family history centres on sprinter Harry Jerome, the author's brother. The title is a double entendre: racial tension and running races receive just about equal attention.
Jerome started writing Races in 1984. She wrestled with the disturbing details for 39 years, and it shows. Most readers will understand that racism breeds inter-generational trauma. That does not lessen the shock at seeing this famous family riven by racial hatred. While three family members saw Olympic or world record success, generations of Jeromes suffered and perpetuated violent bigotry.
Harry Jerome's maternal grandfather, John Armstrong Howard, was born in Winnipeg in 1888. He was a Black man, and he was the fastest runner in Canada. He won the Canadian Olympic trials in 100- and 200-metres and went to the Stockholm Games in 1912. He was treated poorly by Walter Knox, the infamously racist coach of the Canadian athletes. The team stayed in a swanky Montreal hotel enroute the Olympics, while "Army" was left in a shack by the train station. There were attempts to disqualify him on grounds that he was not truly amateur. He fell ill during competition, and won neither of his Olympic events, though he dominated lesser competitions in later years.
"Army" married Edith, a white English woman, and had three kids, Elsie, Connie, and Kay. During their marriage, Edith had another child, Caroline, who was blue-eyed and blonde. When Army died in 1937, Caroline was the only daughter who Edith did not abandon. She re-married, this time to a white, racist piece of work named Happy Sumpton.
After Army's demise, Harry Vincent Jerome, a fellow CNR porter, came to visit the three cast-off daughters of his deceased work friend. The three sisters approached life in three very different ways. Aunt Connie, as Valerie Jerome knew her, denies her blackness. She chooses to 'pass' and lives in exclusively white neighborhoods in various American cities. Aunt Kay embraces her Black parentage, is active in her Black community, and goes on to work alongside the Reverend Jesse Jackson in Chicago.
So while two of the three sisters go opposite ways, racially speaking, Valerie's mother Elsie marries Harry Vincent, a Black man, has Black children with him, and all the while insists that she herself is white. She denies having a Black father, despite stashing silver trophies bearing his name in cupboards around the house.
On Sept. 30, 1940, Harry Winston Jerome is born. Carolyn is born in 1942, Valerie in 1944, and little brother Barton in 1945. Louise, the youngest arrives in 1953.
Elsie is violent with her children. Mentally and physically terrorizing the whole family. In one early incident among many, Elsie hurls a pot of hot soup across the kitchen, hitting baby Barton in the forehead. When he returns from hospital, he is suffering seizures which continue the rest of his life. He is stalled intellectually, and the mother has him institutionalized, and sterilized.
Harry Jerome, like his siblings, is beset by racial animosity in the schoolyard, public spaces, busses, and cafes. The racist hatred is compounded, if not worse, by his own mom.
The family buys a home in North Vancouver, only to discover that neighbours have petitioned city hall to keep them out. Unlike most of Vancouver at the time, their block has no official covenants to bar Blacks, Asians and Jews from owning homes. The Jeromes move in, but the children are pelted with rocks and slurs on their way to the first day of school.
The family takes in a foster child who is darker skinned. Elsie Jerome beats him horribly. While she thrashes her own Black children at home, she also volunteers to lead a cub pack of all-white children, who she showers with sweetness and affection.
Somewhere around the age of 13, Harry races 100 yards at a camp outing for newspaper boys. He wins. That same year, he is taken by Elsie to visit his ailing grandmother and her husband, Happy Sumpton. Sumpton aims a gun and an unrepeatable racial slur at his grandson, and threatens murder if Harry steps another foot on his rural property.
Harry absorbs the vile incident. So begins his lifelong habit of showing extreme restraint to those who would torment him. Their gentle dad suffers agonies at the home situation, but his railroad work keeps him away so many days and nights, he is powerless to change it.
Older sister Carolyn is savagely beaten by her mother on the eve of her 14th birthday. She too starts seizing. Valerie develops eating disorders. Each child finds a different coping strategy. Valerie loves the world of education. For Harry, sports and friends are a refuge. He pours his stress into training.
In 1958, Harry encourages Valerie to get into athletics, as a way to counteract the ongoing abuse at home. The two join a track club, and so begin the happiest years they have known to date. Valerie becomes an accomplished high jumper, long jumper, and sprinter.
The next year, Harry smashes the 100m and 200m high school records set by Percy Williams in 1928. The high school nationals in Winnipeg are another standout performance for the siblings, and Harry and Valerie are both famous for a few days. Their success is marred by racist reporting, which leans hard on repeated observations of skin colour.
Harry goes to Eugene, Ore., on a full scholarship under coach Bill Bowerman, of Nike fame. He begins smashing track records. Valerie's own athletic success helps erode the racism she has hitherto faced. Harry becomes the toast of Eugene, but it remains a segregated campus, and there are many places that refuse to serve him.
Olympic highs and lows
The Rome 1960 Olympic tryouts take place in Saskatoon. At 19 years old, Harry runs a 9.9, possibly 10 seconds flat. Either time eclipses the world record. Reporters quickly swarm him, but Harry asks for a few minutes to cool down before he speaks. This rubs media the wrong way. A Black man who didn't accommodate immediate requests? That was an affront. When Harry also chose to wear track pants as he ran his 200m trials (because his muscles needed more warm up time) the media ascribes this to arrogance.
Not all media, but influential – and mostly Eastern Canadian – sports writers misunderstand Harry from that point on.
Their mother and their grandmother, who have spent 20 years abusing the kids, show up after this success and mug for the cameras. At 17, sister Carolyn can take no more. She moves to Winnipeg and severs all ties with the family.
Harry heads into the Rome Olympics as world record holder. He is nearly overwhelmed by the expectations that pour on him. He skips the mile-long opening ceremony parade, since he is due to run the next morning. The press calls it an insult to Canada. He tears a tendon above his hamstring in the semifinals. Canada did not have a doctor in its delegation, and the therapy they scramble to find is misguided and worsens the injury.
The Canadian press and some delegation members write shameful crap about Harry's Olympic experience. Reporters call him a faker and a quitter. To his credit, the venerable Dick Beddoes was one of the few to challenge the other writers on their slanderous takes.
Their mother, too, publicly opines that her son had quit. Harry Jerome is nearly broken by the countless indignities and racist aggressions he has endured.
With Carolyn gone from the home, Valerie is now the target of her mother's undiluted racist attacks.
Valerie snaps a hamstring at a track practice. Limping home, she falls victim to yet another physical assault from her mother. She flees and her coach's family take her in. When Valerie returns home to collect a few things, she finds a smouldering heap of ashes in the yard. Her mother has burned all of the family photos, old letters from Black family members, and every press clipping about her children's track success.
The family splits up. The author becomes a ward of Children's Aid. She is taken in by the Thompson family, who become her fosters. She learns for the first time that Elsie, her mother, is in fact a Black woman.
The glory years begin
Harry has a great 1961 racing season. He is the NCAA champion in the 220-yard event. He enjoys widespread respect for the first time while competing in Europe. Harry gets a girlfriend, Wendy, who wants coach Bowerman to increase Jerome's scholarship money. She drives a wedge between Bowerman and Jerome. The couple quarrel, but the discord seems to fuel Harry. He has a spectacular 1962. Eighteen undefeated races. At age 21 he marries Wendy, trouble and strife notwithstanding.
Harry gets into a much worse than normal argument with his new bride. She somehow leaves him pinned under a U-haul trailer full of their furniture. He is furious like never before. He storms into the house, falls down a flight of stairs, and then sets a new world record in the 100 yards. All the above happens in the same hour.
Harry and Wendy cannot rent an apartment in Vancouver, because they are a mixed-race couple. This practise is by now illegal, but that does not end it.
At the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Harry suffers another serious injury, shredding his quad muscle. This has career-ending potential. Some Canadian journalists persist in insulting commentary. They suggest that Harry Jerome should have just toughed it out. That talk spreads even as Jerome is undergoing surgery, and forced to wear a cast from hip to toe for many weeks.
A comeback story
The rehab period is gruelling. Income-less, Harry and Wendy and their new daughter are helped along financially by donations from friendly Vancouverites.
Valerie gets into her own rocky marriage, which is also plagued by mixed-race bias and tension. She has a chemical hair straightening, to appease her white mother-in-law on her wedding day. Her now brittle hair falls out six months later, by which time, Valerie has become an admirer of Angela Davis. She grows an Afro and never looks back.
By 1964, Harry has thrown himself into his rehab with such intensity that he can run again. He does a 60 yard dash in 6.0 seconds. Bill Bowerman calls it "the greatest comeback in track-and-field history."
Harry races and wins his last run at Eugene. He qualifies for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He races to bronze in the 100m. It is Canada's first Olympic track medal since 1936.
In 1966, Harry runs yet another world record. He finishes the 100 yards in 9.1 seconds at the Canadian championships in Edmonton.
He qualifies for Mexico 1968. The same year, Valerie wins the 100m in a track meet in Stockholm, in the exact same stadium her grandfather had run in 56 years earlier. Valerie earns a spot on the 1968 Olympic team, but withdraws because she wants to stay in university and attend to her shaky marriage.
As the Mexico City games drew near, Avery Brundage, then-president of the IOC, made overtly racist comments about Jessie Owens. Harry runs the 100m and 200m, but he is well behind the winners. Harry is asked to comment on the famous raised-glove protests of Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
"I think they are sincerely trying to create an awareness that will lead to a better United States. The Black man wants to be looked on not only as an entertainer but also as someone who has a place in the social structure," Jerome says.
His measured words are a minority sentiment. Both protesting athletes are suspended, kicked out of the Olympic Village, and vilified in the media.
Jerome's competitive days end at the Olympics. His career closes with six world records and very little approval in the national media. He is never voted athlete of the year.
Harry gets a federal job, touring the country with other Olympians, demonstrating athletics to inspire students. The work gives him validation. He gets deep into coaching and organizing fitness for youth. When his contributions to Canadian sport are finally recognized in 1971, he is made a member of the Order of Canada. Their dad flies on a plane for the first time for the ceremony. For the rest of his life, Harry Jerome Sr. cannot discuss that day without tearing up. Harry Jerome said the recognition was the most important in his life.
He goes on to develop curriculum for sport and fitness, and works with the BC human rights commission to fight racism in society.
At 40, Harry also develops seizures. Like Barton, like Carolyn. Were the many childhood beatings to blame? Harry Jerome is medicated to offset the grands mals, but he aspirates during a seizure, and dies.
Valerie Jerome ends her disturbing biography of one of Canada's greatest athletes with a lingering note of dissatisfaction. She points out that obituaries by members of the Toronto press gave short shrift to Harry Jerome's accomplishments, even in death.
A caution: Races recounts many instances of Anti-Black racist language and insults.
Races: The Trials & Triumphs of Canada's Fastest Family 272 pages, b&w photos. GooseLane Editions. Paperback $24.95, electronic $19.95, audiobook $30
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.