Cornelius Johnson won gold in the high jump to become the first Olympic champion from the United States.
A young man from Los Angeles traveled to the Berlin Olympics in the 1930s. Cornelius Johnson, the first Black athlete, won gold in the high jump to become the first Olympic champion from the United States. His triumph transcended sports and made him a significant figure in the pre-Civil Rights era. According to The New York Times, he took home a gold medal and an oak sapling, which he planted at his Los Angeles home. The tree is still standing in his Koreatown backyard as "a remembrance of a time when Black athletes from the U.S. symbolized victory over the racist Aryan supremacist credo of the Nazi government that sponsored the 1936 games."
The oak seedlings, called "Olympic oaks," symbolized superiority and strength for the Nazis. Like other gold medalists, African American athlete Cornelius Johnson was given one with his medal. However, Adolf Hilter left the stadium a few minutes after Johnson received the award to avoid shaking the black athlete's hand. Hitler's staff maintained that he had other appointments to attend. The head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Henri de Baillet-Latour, told Hilter that he could either congratulate all the gold medalists or none. Hitler chose none. According to Britannica, in April 1933, the Nazis’ sports office implemented an "Aryans-only" policy, which should be followed strictly. The policy sparked global outrage, with the United States and Europe wanting to pull out of the Berlin Olympics altogether.
News on the Cornelius Johnson’s Olympic Oak front: Efforts to preserve and advocate for this threatened site are featured in the New York Times by @tarangoNYT https://t.co/eBtmbYf7Sf— Esotouric's Secret Los Angeles (@esotouric) May 28, 2022
with a link to our blog post. https://t.co/zScGBqm7JJ
But the 87-year-old oak tree's historical legacy is on the verge of being lost. The plan to reconstruct the area into luxury townhomes is underway. For real estate agents and people with a housing crisis, this would be a necessary thing to do, but for historians, the destruction would be an insurmountable loss. The preservation of historical landmarks with ties to Black history has received a lot of attention in Los Angeles in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder and the subsequent civil rights protests. The preservationists fighting to save the tree consider it a link to events like the rise of Nazi Germany and the achievements of Black American athletes at the Berlin Games.
"It was an absolute horror for me to imagine that it's going to be destroyed," said Christian Kosmas Mayer, a German artist working to save the tree. Peter Paik, a real estate agent, said in response to queries about the tree, "My duty is to sell the house." The once majestic oak tree has been known to look undernourished. The frail canopy and the roots underneath the concrete yearn for care. Moreover, the exchange between Hitler and other black athletes was not the only one that ignited controversies. Back home, President Franklin D. Roosevelt welcomed only white athletes to the White House. After his time as an athlete, Johnson worked as a mail carrier and then as a merchant mariner. He became ill while on a ship and passed away in 1946 at the age of 32.
The Johnson family still lives in Los Angeles after his parents moved there in the late 1890s. Johnson's nephew, James Braxton, still lives in the city and keeps his uncle's souvenirs, such as letters from fans, passenger ship tickets to Europe and old clippings from European newspapers. The roots of the tree under the concrete would be lost if the tree were uprooted. "The roots of this tree, although we can't see them, are screaming," he said, adding that "it's going to take a lot for it to recover in its existing location." Alejandro Urias, a neighbor, reminisced about how he brought friends up to his balcony to get a good look at the tall oak tree. "It was flourishing," Mr. Urias said. "It was full of leaves." It was a sight to see. It was really beautiful. I remember you could see it everywhere."