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Black History Month: Phil Edwards transcended racism, brought international glory to Hamilton

Black History Month: Phil Edwards transcended racism, brought international glory to Hamilton

The Hamilton Olympic Club, the oldest track and field organization in Canada, celebrated its 90th birthday in 2016. From the beginning the club has produced many world-class athletes—but perhaps none more gifted and interesting than Phil Edwards—in his day one of the world’s top middle distance runners—and a lot more. Edwards ended up winning five bronze  medals in the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Olympics.  It was something of an accident in global politics of the day that Edwards ended up bringing Olympic glory to Hamilton. Phil Edwards was born in Georgetown Guyana, the son of a wealthy magistrate. At some point Edward’s father moved the family to New York City to live in the then fashionable Harlem, where it appears he prospered in real estate. Edwards enrolled at NYU and excelled as a track star, becoming the US half-mile champion. Because he was a British subject he was ineligible to try out for the 1928 US Olympic Team. While taking part in a track meet at the CNE in 1927, he was discovered by M.M.Bobby Robinson of the fledgling Hamilton Olympic Club. Edwards was invited to join the Hamilton Club and it was while wearing their colours that he was named to the Canadian Olympic team. Edwards quickly became a media darling. He was described as a “phenomenon” by the Globe but also racial adjectives like “coloured” and “dusky” were  ubiquitous in news accounts of the day, even in a stiff, Christian pro-temperance journal as the Globe was.

In the lead-up to the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics Phil shattered records for the 800 meters at the 91st Highlander Games in Hamilton, at a meet in Pennsylvania and in Toronto in June. In July it was off to Amsterdam. He finished a disappointing fourth in the 800 meters race; but it was Edwards’ lap in the men’s 4×400 meter relay that was credited for Canada winning a bronze medal.

Phil seen (Lower left) won the 1500 metre race at the Olympic trials held in Hamilton in 1928

It was on the way back home from the Olympics that an interesting sidelight, and for the time, somewhat shocking chapter in Phil’s life occurred. On a ship returning to North America Phil met 17 year old Edith Margaret Oedelshoff, a well-educated girl, born in Alsace, but who had moved with her parents to Weehawken New Jersey across the river from Manhattan. A romance ensued and within months Phil announced the two would be married. As the Globe put it, “Phil Edwards, negro half-mile star of the Canadian Olympic track team said today that he would be married some time this week to Miss Margaret Edith Oedelshoff, 19 years old, white.” The story was picked up by Time magazine and many US newspapers, accompanied by a picture of the handsome young couple. According to the news accounts Edith’s father’s only objection was to her young age, but that he had come around, and the wedding took place at the Church of the Crucifixion on West 149th Street in October of 1929. (As a footnote The  two were divorced in 1945 and both remarried, and prospered—Phil later as a surgeon and Edith as the wife of a professor and a music instructor at Bishop’s University.)

In the 1920’s track and field was a popular spectator sport, drawing huge crowds. Fans would know the names and records of their heroes much as kids today can rhyme off stats about their favorite pro athletes in team sports. Phil Edwards was recognized as a star wherever he went in North America to the almost endless track meets that were staged then. Outside of the Olympics he was still on the NYU track team and raced everywhere for the varsity squad. So much in demand was Edwards that in January 1929 he won an 800 meter race in Manhattan and then jumped into a taxi to compete in a 600 meter race in Brooklyn which he also won. Three days later he was in the news with a story that said he had been practicing the mile run in order to challenge Finnish long distance sensation Paavo Nurmi, who up to that point possessed 9 Olympic Gold medals. So busy was Edwards that In July of 1929, anxious to get back to Hamilton to take part in Olympic trials for the 1932 games, Edwards left a track meet in Denver, took an airplane 1000 miles to Chicago and from there caught a train to Hamilton. At those trials Edwards finished first in the 800 meters and the mile.

Phil (r) racing under the colours of New York University

Throughout all this time Edwards seems to have enjoyed an unusual amount of acceptance by Hamilton society, which otherwise would have possessed the same prejudices that were prevalent at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was still a force in the US and Canada. Perhaps it was his wealth and education that overcame racial attitudes, plus he possessed an engaging personality. Home movies of the period show him mingling easily with his Olympic Club teammates at the officer’s mess of the Argylls—then a bastion of Hamilton’s elite. Later he accompanies the local team to a meet in Banff where the movies show he is clearly one of the boys, with his movie star good looks and an expensive-looking wardrobe. Similar scenes appear when Edwards and the Hamilton squad to Edwards take part in a meet in New York. At that meet he won the 600 meter race prompting a Globe writer to enthuse, albeit with the racial references that seemed unavoidable in the journalism of the day; “the appearance of Phil Edwards the British Guyana Star was the occasion of an ovation by those present and the coloured flash wearing the colours of the Hamilton Olympic Club lost no time in demonstrating to those present that he is one of the greatest runners of the world…”

In 1930, when the first ever British Empire Games were held in Hamilton in the new Civic Stadium, purpose-built for the occasion, Edwards was able to wear the colours of his native Guyana. Surprisingly, he finished out of the medals. By this time Edwards had enrolled at McGill University to study medicine and joined Mc Gill track team. Teammate Jim Worrall described Edwards. “Phil was the backbone of the McGill team. Phil was an outstanding human being. I would like to describe him as a gentleman and a gentle man. He was not overly modest. But he didn’t push himself forward. He was a team player.”

When the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics rolled around, Phil Edwards was back in Hamilton working out with the Hamilton club. At the Los Angeles Games Edwards took three bronze medals, his best showing to date—a performance that was described by pundits as a “comeback” after he had reduced his track appearances to pursue his studies.

Canada’s Phil Edwards (second from left) competes in an athletics event at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Edwards won bronze medals in the 800 and 1,500m.

Certainly nobody expected that Edwards would try to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympiad, indeed the pundits suggested Edwards, now referred to as “doctor” in some stories was over the hill. But Phil still had another big performance in store, capturing the bronze in the 800m, placing fourth in 4x400m relay  and was fifth in  the 1500m. Actually it was something of a miracle that Edwards was at the games at all. The Nazi hierarchy insisted “blacks must be excluded.” Still, the German National Olympic Committee persuaded Hitler that even a Games that included non-Aryan athletes could be turned to Germany’s propaganda advantage. When filmmaker Lena Riefenstahl  produced her documentary on the games, the narrator makes reference to Edwards as he describes the 800 meter race. “Two black runners against the strongest of the white race,” muses Olympia’s commentator as he surveys the field for the men’s 800m. On that occasion the black runners, the US’s John Woodruff and Canada’s Phil Edwards, took gold and bronze respectively. Following the Berlin games the Canadian team stopped off in London, where once again race became an issue. The team checked into a London Hotel where some patrons objected to sharing space with a black man.  But the team would have none of that and moved to another hotel. Cathleen Hughes-Hallett, a fencer summed things up. She said, ‘if this hotel is too good for Phil Edwards, it’s too good for me.’ Back home Phil’s achievements were capped, when he became the first winner of the Lou Marsh trophy, as Canada’s best athlete.

With his running career over, Edwards joined the staff of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, and embarked on a long and distinguished medical career, becoming an expert in tropical diseases. He served as a physician in the Second World War as a Captain. He put his expertise to use on a number of international medical missions. He died in Montreal on Sept. 6, 1971 and shortly afterwards, the “Phil Edwards Memorial Trophy”, was established to be presented annually to Canada’s most outstanding track athlete.  After a long period of neglect and intense lobbying by his surviving Olympic teammates, he was elected into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame.

Winner of five bronze medals, Phil Edwards is Canada’s most decorated Olympian and perhaps the greatest athlete ever associated with Hamilton.

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