Jeramey Jannene

How Should Milwaukee Honor Ralph Metcalfe?

Black sprinter was once "fastest man in the world," and later a political trailblazer.

By - Nov 11th, 2021 05:30 pm
Metcalfe Park. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Metcalfe Park. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Sprinter Ralph H Metcalfe, Sr. made his impact felt on and off the track during his 68 years of life. And now Milwaukee is considering how to honor his legacy.

A city committee is recommending he be given an honorary street name, but members of the Common Council are considering taking things even further. The city’s Metcalfe Park neighborhood and a school are already named for him.

Metcalfe, who grew up in Chicago, attended college at Marquette University from 1932 to 1936. While there he served as senior class president and was a cum laude graduate with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. It was also during that time that he gained a nickname: the “fastest man in the world.”

He equaled the world record in both the 100 and 200 meter dash and became the first male athlete to win the NCAA 200 meter race three years in a row.

Competing in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, Metcalfe secured silver and bronze medals in the 100 and 200 meter sprints. The 100 meter race ended in a virtual tie, leading to a change in the rules regarding what actually constitutes crossing the finish line.

Metcalfe and fellow American (and Black) sprinter Jesse Owens led the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in the 4×100 meter relay in the 1936 Olympics held in Nazi-controlled Germany. And while Owens would win headlines with four gold medals, Metcalfe broke the relay speed record and secured a silver medal in the 100 meter (behind Owens).

He served as a track coach and political science instructor at Xavier University in New Orleans before returning to Chicago. In the Windy City, Metcalfe would serve as director of the city’s Department of Civil Rights, four terms as an alderman and, from 1971 until his death in 1978, in the U.S. House of Representatives. As a congressman, he would co-found the Congressional Black Caucus.

“This was actually a pretty historic guy,” said Alderman Robert Bauman on Wednesday to members of the Public Works Committee.

“The people in Metcalfe Park really connect to him in the way that he represents tenacity, going the distance and winning,” said Metcalfe Park Community Bridges president Danell Cross.

Cross, with Wisconsin Black Historical Society director Clayborn Benson, submitted an application to have an honorary street name applied to N. 34th St. from W. North Ave. to W. Center St. in his honor. The four-block stretch would pass Milwaukee Public Schools‘ Ralph H. Metcalfe Neighborhood School, 3400 W. North Ave., the Todd Wehr Metcalfe Community Center and the Metcalfe Park playfield.

But Bauman pushed for more, like fully renaming a street.

“North Avenue is named after nobody, Center Street is named after nobody ,” he said. [Ed: Center Street is actually named after somebody]

“I would definitely support that, I’m sure the Metcalfe Park community would as well,” said area Alderman Russell W. Stamper, II.

Cross said the organization was hoping to avoid the disruption that would come to residents and businesses with fully renaming a street.

The alderman also said it made sense to avoid renaming the orderly numbered streets and suggested the Department of Public Works develop a policy to discourage renaming those streets.

“That’s a valid point. I don’t disagree with it,” said Stamper.

But Bauman said Metcalfe was a person worthy of having a more prominent landmark named after him.

He suggested renaming Merrill Park, 461 N. 35th St. Merrill is a person, but he is a very old person,” said Bauman. “I don’t know if he needs a neighborhood and a park named after him.”

The city-owned park and surrounding neighborhood are named for Sherburn S. Merrill (1818-1885), general manager of the Milwaukee Road railroad. Merrill built a house on today’s W. Wisconsin Ave. and owned 15 surrounding acres which he parceled off to railroad employees. He was the driving force behind developing the sprawling railroad complex just to the south in the Menomonee Valley. The central Wisconsin city of Merrill is also named for him.

Bauman said renaming Merrill Park after Metcalfe would be fitting given that Marquette Stadium, where Metcalfe competed, was located immediately west of the park. Today that facility is part of Marquette University High School‘s Quad Park.

“I love it,” said Stamper.

And naming a park after Metcalfe is such a good idea that the city has already done it, twice.

Beyond being a neighborhood, Metcalfe Park is a city-owned playfield located behind his namesake school. It spans both sides of N. 33rd St. south of W. Meinecke Ave. Similar to Merrill, it is operated by Milwaukee Public Schools’ Milwaukee Recreation division. Primarily a grass lot with a fieldhouse, a single sign denotes its existence. Some records refer to it as “Metcalfe Playfield.” Created under a different name before Metcalfe passed away, it was rebranded with the neighborhood starting in 1990 as part of a revitalization effort.

Metcalfe Rising Park is located on a formerly vacant, city-owned lot at 3401 W. Center St. It was dedicated in 2016 and is named after the neighborhood, which in turn is named after the sprinter.

Merrill, located approximately two miles south of the Metcalfe parks, is more substantial.

What else could the city name after Metcalfe beyond a street or park?

It recently renamed the Milwaukee Fire Department administration building after its designer and Wisconsin’s first black architect, Alonzo Robinson.

The honorary street naming will place brown signs atop the traditional green signs at six locations along N. 34th St. The signs at the intersection with W. North Ave. will be discontinuous from the rest of N. 34th St. because of the school and playfield in-between. The full council must still approve the renaming.

A series of awards, chairs and other honors are named after Metcalfe at Marquette.


N. 24th Pl. Honorary Name

The committee also endorsed the honorary naming of a portion of N. 24th Pl. after “Mother” Corrine Miller.

Nominated by her daughter Brenda Miller, the naming would apply from W. Hopkins St. to W. Concordia Ave. The elder Miller was administrator of Golden Rule Church of God in Christ at 2434 W. Hopkins St. and her late husband Charles Miller served as pastor. She passed away on Aug. 1 age at the age of 86.

“A role model with more than just great assets to give to her community, she gave values,” wrote Brenda Miller in the nomination. “There was not one family in the Hopkins community and other communities that didn’t have a holiday because she gave away on holidays to see her community smile.”

If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real, independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits.

Categories: City Hall, Parks, Weekly

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us