Olympic medalist Ralph Boston remembers days of segregation

Olympic medalist Ralph Boston remembers days of segregation

2 - Peachtree City resident Ralph Boston (right) was the 1960 Olympic Games gold medalist in the long jump competition. (Special photo)
2 – Peachtree City resident Ralph Boston (right) was the 1960 Olympic Games gold medalist in the long jump competition. (Special photo)

Peachtree City resident and Olympic gold medalist Ralph Boston will turn 76 this year, and as he looks back over his storied sports career, he says he is grateful for the moments of equality and even exceptionalism athletics brought to his life during those otherwise unequal years of racial segregation in the United States.

Boston was born in 1939 in Laurel, Mississippi, and being black he was sent to Oak Park High School, which is where he became the star quarterback for his school’s football team. He wanted to play football in college, and he says he received plenty of scholarship offers, but instead he heeded the advice of his mother and pursued the less glorious direction of track and field.

His mother, he says, was worried he would get hurt playing football.

“I was six-one, and I weighed 140 pounds,” Boston remembers. “I looked like six o’clock.

“I got my bell rung in a football game she listened to on the radio, and that bothered her.”

And so track and field it would be, mainly field. And really, it would be the long jump that sprung Boston to international fame.

“When I finished high school, track was not as much of a sport of interest,” says Boston. “It was not the sport that it is now.”

While attending the all-black Tennessee State University in Nashville, Boston was given the opportunity to compete on the national level, and in 1960 he won long jump gold at the Olympic Games in Rome, Italy while setting an Olympic record of 8.12 meters. He would go on to win silver in the long jump at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan and bronze in 1968 at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, Mexico.

All during Boston’s international competitive career, he says he never experienced racial discrimination while participating in the Olympics and competing alongside other Olympic athletes.

“When I showed some promise, a lot of stuff went away,” Boston says. “I never saw friction. Those men and women I was on the team with were fine.

“That wasn’t tough,” he says. “It was when you came back home.”

Boston says he remembers returning to Nashville after winning the gold medal in Rome, and even though he was treated as some kind of a hero within the world of international sports, he was still not allowed to go see a first-run film at the major cinemas in Nashville. He says he remembers some Iranian students coming back to the campus from watching a movie, and he says they laughed at him, because he would have to wait for that same feature film to eventually show up in one of the black cinemas in town.

As Boston’s Olympic career progressed, times were changing in the States, too. By the time he won his bronze medal in Mexico City in the summer of 1968, things for Boston had changed completely.

“I came directly from Mexico City to Knoxville, because I had a job in Student Affairs with the University of Tennessee,” Boston says.

Until a few years before, the University of Tennessee had been a non-black school.

Boston would continue working with UT through 1975, rising to the rank of assistant dean of students.

Boston took a job with South Central Bell (the phone company) in 1975, and by the late 1980s he and some other investors formed the VHF television Channel 8 in Knoxville. In 1992 he moved to Atlanta to work for Ericsson, and five years later he moved to Peachtree City.

It was the golf, he says, that drew him to the area.

Now retired, Boston says he doesn’t play as much golf as he used to play, but he still enjoys the game.

“I still enjoy it when I can get out and putt a few,” he says.

Boston says he stays busy these days volunteering, spending time with family and friends and “enjoying life.”

Looking back, he says he sees clearly that if it were not for the many people in athletics who preceded him in breaking the racial barriers, he would not have enjoyed the opportunities he was afforded. And while he says he did suffer the effects of segregation, he says even that wasn’t a complete curse.

Boston in particular points to his college track and field days, when instead of eating out and staying in hotels, which was forbidden for black people, his team stayed on the campuses of host colleges, and they ate meals in the college cafeterias. That gave him and his teammates better opportunities to develop personal friendships with people from all over the States.

“It was quite good when you look at that part,” Boston says.

Just the same, Boston says he has great hopes for a day when racial difference cease to divide people in this country.

Recently, Boston took part in the City of Fayetteville’s inaugural Black History Month program, and while he focused his talk mostly on the black heroes of sports and industry who helped pave the way for black people today to have greater freedoms than they did 50 years ago, he also commended the city for hosting such a program, which he said will help bring about greater interracial understanding.

Olympic superstar Jesse Owens in particular is a hero to Boston.

“These people made things easier for people like Brian Jordan, Tiger Woods and me,” Boston says.

Danny Harrison

Danny Harrison, a 1992 Fayette High School graduate, began his journalism career with Fayette County News in 1995. After taking several leaves of absence to pursue journalism and Christian ministry opportunities, including a few out of state and overseas, he returned full-time to Fayette County News in August 2014. Harrison earned a bachelor's degree in pastoral ministry in 2009 while serving as a missionary journalist in England and Western Europe.