Hurdling Race: The Story of Charles Brookins

by Matthew Lundeen February 28, 2017
Charles Brookins clearing a hurdle circa 1924.
photo courtesy Lundeen family

The story of a former University of Iowa track star and the secret that he kept until his death.

Almost a century ago, Charles Brookins was one of the most recognized names on the campus of the University of Iowa. Born in 1899 in East Des Moines Township, located just south of Oskaloosa, Brookins was a multi-sport athlete at Oskaloosa High. Track was his best sport, but he also played basketball, and was an outstanding tailback on the football team. He was so quick and elusive on the football field, in fact, he set an Oskaloosa High record for the most touchdowns in a single game (seven) against Centerville in 1919. That record was so impressive, it wasn’t until 2006 that it was even matched when another future Hawkeye, Tyler Sash, tied the record. Brookins would also go on to play football for the Great Lakes Naval Station during World War I. But it was track that would be his calling, and it was the University of Iowa that gave him the opportunity to display his talents, beginning in the spring of 1921.  

World-Renowned Track Star

Source: The Iowa Transit, Volumes 26-29

Under brand new coach, George Bresnahan, Brookins joined the Hawkeye track and field team in 1921, but did not see action, due to rules that did not allow for freshman to compete. As a result, it was his sophomore year in 1922 that would give fans a glimpse of just how special Brookins and this Hawkeye team were going to be over the next few years.

During that 1922 campaign, Brookins showed off his versatility. The 5’8” and 141 pound speedster not only won the Big Ten Championship in the 50-yard dash—the first Hawkeye sprinter to ever win a conference championship—and 220-yard low hurdles, but he also set an NCAA record in the 220-yard low hurdles and set a world record in the 40-yard dash—the first Iowa athlete to set a world record, according to the University of Iowa

Source: Aug. 17, 1960 edition of The Des Moines Register.

With such a breakout sophomore campaign, expectations were no doubt high for Brookins as a junior in 1923. Those expectations were shattered, however, when he further demonstrated his all-world ability. That season Brookins was not only the NCAA and National AAU champion in the 220-yard low hurdles, but he also set a world record—his second now in two different events. By this time, the hype surrounding Brookins had ballooned, and any expectations he had going into his junior year were microscopic compared to what was expected from him as a senior.

Brookins—now captain of the Hawkeye team—not only won his third straight Big Ten Championship in the 220-yard low hurdles in 1924, but he also set another world record in the same event at a meet in Ames in May of that year. He broke his previous record of 23.2 seconds by clearing the hurdles in 23 seconds flat. However, since the referees of the event did not initially submit details on the weather and conditions that day, it would not be until 1925 that the record would become official. That record proved to be so remarkable that it would not even be tied until nine years after he originally broke it. Furthermore, no one managed to break it until 1935 when someone by the name of Jesse Owens would run the race in 22.9 seconds.

1924 was also a big year for Brookins because he was invited to try out for the Olympic Games in Paris, France. The catch, however, was that his best event was not offered, so he instead had to run in the 400-meter hurdle race. During the Olympic tryouts, Brookins not only set a world record in this event once, but he actually did so twice. The first time around he completed the course in 53.5 seconds, which was a full half-second faster than the previous world record. The second time around, he did so in just 53.1. That record would not last long, though, as Grinnell College's own track star, Morgan Taylor, would later run it in 53 seconds during the same tryouts. 

Despite the briefness of his new world record in the third event of his career, there was nothing for Brookins to be ashamed of. His performance during the tryouts was so outstanding that he made the United States Olympic track team with ease. Unfortunately, he would not find quite the same success once he was in Paris for the actual games. The early qualifying portion of his event went well, as Brookins won the semifinals. Once in the finals, however, he finished in second place, but was disqualified when a judge claimed that he had improperly cleared a hurdle. The U.S. team protested and there were a few eye-witness accounts who felt the judgement was bogus, but it was upheld on appeal, nonetheless.

Source: Sep. 21, 1924 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune

Once he was back in the states, Brookins—who still had a semester left in school, since he entered college in the spring semester of 1921—decided he would end his collegiate athletic career on the gridiron. That fall, he tried out for Bert Ingwersen’s Hawkeye football team and found a spot in the backfield quite a ways down the depth chart. He mostly played at the end of blowouts, but perhaps his finest moment came at the end of a 0-0 tie against Ohio State. Brookins wasn’t brought in until the final drive, but he started busting off big gains of 10, 15, and 25 yards on the ground against the Buckeye defense. But sadly, time ran out on the drive and the game ended all knotted up at zero. 

After graduation, Brookins still ran in non-collegiate races and even stuck around the athletic department, serving as equipment manager for both the football and track teams. He was on top of the world during this time, as he was the subject of a promotional Big Ten poster that was painted by Grant Wood and he even designed his own track shoe that was used by members of the Hawkeye track and field team. By the end of 1925, Brookins finally called it quits on professional running. And according to the January 3, 1926 edition of The Davenport Democrat and Leader, Charles finished his athletic career with 15 records still to his name. More specifically, they were individually listed as such:

"two world's amateur records, one American amateur record, a world's intercollegiate record, two National A.A.U. records, three Mid-Western A.A.U. records, one national collegiate record, three conference records, two state records, and eight university records."

In 1927, Brookins was named the freshman track coach and that was the position he would hold before leaving the University in 1930. He would eventually move to Des Moines, and  would pass away in 1960, at the age of 60. Upon his death, his name still proved relevant enough for the New York Times to even write a small obituary on him

Now, at this point in the story, you might be asking why I’m telling you all of this. You see, Charles Brookins was my great-grandfather. More precisely, he was the father of my paternal grandmother. When my great-grandmother (his wife) passed away in 1997, I distinctly remember helping clean out her house and learning about how much of an accomplished athlete he was. I got to see family heirlooms like his Olympic jersey and I was introduced to the room in the basement that was stacked almost from floor to ceiling with trophies and awards that he had compiled over the years. And this was the story I knew for the next 15 years of my life: the clean cut, All-American athlete and University of Iowa Hall of Fame inductee who had later settled down and raised a family in Des Moines. It wasn’t until I grew up and applied my fascination with history and research to my family tree, that I found a much more complicated human being.

The Family Secret

Source: 1900 United States Federal Census

As a child, I was always fascinated with the different countries my ancestors had come from. When I was in elementary school learned that my last name was Swedish, and I immediately started looking up information about the country in my school library's set of encyclopedias. In about 2012, I opened up a free account and began doing research. I found various ways to avoid paying a monthly fee to get information, and before I knew it I had multiple branches that stretched back centuries. The Swedish side of my family was fairly easy to find, and most of my mother’s side of the family was pretty easy to track back to various German principalities and various places in the United Kingdom. But the Brookins’ branch was much shorter and more difficult to find information on.

Like any person that conducts family research, I started with United States Federal Census data. I was able to locate my great-grandfather in the 1900 Census and find the names of his parents, Charles Sr. and Sarah, along with the fact that they were originally born in Virginia. For the most part, I was able to go forward all the way to the 1940 Census and track the family. The few exceptions were that Charles Jr. was nowhere to be found in the 1930 Census (even though I know he was in Iowa City serving as freshman track coach at the University), and his father did not appear in any federal Census after 1900. Based on the initial 1900 Census, I was able to see that Charles’ parents had come to Iowa in about 1880, and sure enough, in the 1880 Census (1890 Census records were destroyed in a fire) I was able to find Charles Sr. living as a boarder in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Sarah, though, was nowhere to be found. I attempted to look for her and Charles Sr. in Virginia records, but not knowing the names of parents or siblings made it difficult for me to know for sure if it was them or not. Essentially, I had hit a dead end, and so I took a break.

When I eventually made my way back to the Brookins’ portion of my family tree, I decided to look over the Census data again. This time, I focused on every piece of information that it could give me about my ancestors. I looked at the addresses where they lived, whether they owned or rented those houses, and this time I focused on something that I had completely taken for granted: race.

As you can see, from the pictures above, my great-grandfather looks white. The photos are black and white, of course, but he definitely appears light-skinned. Not to mention that I had spent almost 25 years of my life looking at those pictures and just taking for granted that he was a white man. Yet, every Census that I checked listed my great-grandfather and his family as either “black” or “mulatto.” The only exception was the 1940 Census, in which Charles Jr. had since met and married my great-grandmother, and they were living together in Des Moines, listed as a white couple. But the 1900, 1910, and 1920 Censuses (remember, I have not been able to locate him in the 1930 Census) have him listed as “black” or “mulatto.” And furthermore, his mother and brother are listed as “black” or “mulatto” on every Census through 1940. (Later Census data is not yet available.)

Having your race mistaken once is certainly possible, I presumed. But multiple times and to all of his family members? This didn’t seem like it was a mistake. I asked my grandmother (his daughter), but she said it had to be a mistake too, and I was truly at a loss. So I started looking for information about the color of Charles Jr.’s skin. Fortunately, when an ancestor is this well-known, there are bound to be newspaper articles written about them. And, taking advantage of free access to newspaper databases that I had in graduate school, I went searching for more information.


To my surprise, though, race was virtually never mentioned when they wrote about him in mainstream newspapers. Instead, what I mostly found was article after article about his world records and the various events he won in college and the scandal surrounding his disqualification at the Olympics. What did come as news to me, however, were the multiple wives that he had before he met my great-grandmother, and how his marriage to two of those multiple wives cost him his job as freshman track coach at the University of Iowa.

Yes, as a brief aside, Charles Jr.’s first wife divorced him in 1927. He was then married to two women in the span of months in 1930, both of whom were stenographers at the university. Legally, Charles' divorce from the first woman—whom he had married approximately a month before—had not been finalized before he married the second one, and he was charged with bigamy, as a result. The scandal made every paper in Iowa and various papers nationally. The former wife wrote a letter that she had obtained a divorce and that she had given permission for him to marry again, and this would be used in court to ultimately acquit him of all charges. However, not before E.H. Lauer, the University's athletic director, fired him and made what should be one of the most well-known, but is instead somehow one of the most forgotten statements in the history of public terminations, when he said "Two wives in sixty days is too fast a pace for the athletic department, whatever speed might be wanted on the track." A petition that was circulated in order to get Charles reinstated to his position gathered a thousand signatures and he was able to plead his case to the board, but the decision remained final.

"Two wives in sixty days is too fast a pace for the athletic department, whatever speed might be wanted on the track." -- E.h. Lauer, U of I athletic director

That scandal could have been a story of its own, but I want to get back on topic: I was still at a bit of a dead end when it came to finding more specific information about the racial background of my great-grandfather.

The closest thing I could find in mainstream newspapers to a mention of Charles’ skin color came in the Lincoln Star, when they documented the bigamy case in a series of articles, and frequently made mention that my great-grandfather had previously been married to three "white women." In no other mainstream newspaper did they publisher feel the need to mention the complexion of the women involved, making it a bit suspicious that the Lincoln Star had chosen to do so. 

Frustrated with the lack of headway I was making by looking through the mainstream newspaper archives, it wasn’t until I stumbled upon some traditionally black newspapers and a couple of books that I finally started to feel like I was making a breakthrough on the race question.

Passing as White

Source: June 28, 1924 edition of the Pittsburgh Courier.

It all started with an article from a 1924 issue of the New York Age, entitled “Four Negro Athletes Olympic Representatives.” Toward the bottom of the article, it briefly mentions a controversy over which racial category Brookins belonged to. Specifically, the article states that he "has been generally considered as white, but those who know him say he is a Negro." Further research in black newspapers gave me hardly any more than a similarly brief overview of the fact that in appearance he looked white, but those close to him say that he was black.

Finally, after what felt like an endless amount of Google search attempts, I came across a brief passage from a book entitled The Set-Up Men: Race, Culture and Resistance in Black Baseball. In that lone passage, the author, Sarah L. Trembanis, made reference to an article in the Pittsburgh Courier that mentioned a movement within the African American community for Charles Jr. to identify as black. Wanting to know more, I located the referenced article on my own, and also found another mention in the same paper that said the following:

“In the list of scintillating stars referred to in the previous article, it is noted that name of one Charles Brookins does not appear. According to reports, Brookins doesn’t care to be identified as one of the “brethren,” and if he prefers alignment with the “enemy,” why alright.”

And it was not until the end of last year, when University of Iowa professors Lena and Michael Hill released their book Invisible Hawkeyes in which I discovered that someone else had gone through a similar experience piecing this information together. Brookins is mentioned four times in the book, but the most important paragraph read like this:

"The previously unresolved question of Charles R. Brookins's racial background can finally be laid to rest. Most sources contemporary to Brookins's Olympic appearance never mention his race, and only a handful of black newspapers at the time laid claim to him being African American. All Hawkeye yearbook pictures show that he was lighter-skinned, and his employment as the freshman track coach for the five years after he graduated suggests he likely lived as a white person...The 1910 and 1920 US Census, however, lists the widow, Sarah Brookins of Oskaloosa, Iowa, and her two sons, William L. and Charles R. Brookins, as mulatto...Given their presence among a host of African American families in Oskaloosa during this period, it should come as no surprise that Philip Hubbard, contemporary black news editors, and others placed Brookins among Iowa's early black Olympians."

From what I can tell my great-grandfather purposely tried to hide his family background. Sadly, this was actually pretty common for the time, so much so that the phenomenon was given the name “passing.” Throughout the history of this country, those who were lighter-skinned, due to having a mixed racial background, sometimes chose to be identified as white in order to reap the social and economic benefits that came along with it. In a perfect society that would never be something that anyone would feel pressured to do, but in the racialized history of our country, there was a distinct advantage to identifying as white and erasing all history of your black ancestry. And up until I pieced all of this together over the past few years, this part of his background was still a family secret. To this day there are still family members of mine who deny it. And I have even heard of a potential cover story that was handed down through the family that there was another “Charles Brookins” at the University of Iowa during this time that caused great confusion. Based on the accounts from the various newspapers and books I’ve come across, though, that seems very unlikely.

So why would my great-grandfather not want to be identified as a black man? This is a question I was left asking myself, and this is where it became important for me to gain some context on the times. You see, he was coming of age in the 1920s, and for those of you who know your American history, you know that this was in middle of the “Roaring Twenties.” Times were good for the economy, and they were especially good if you happened to be white. If you were black, however, you were forced to live under either an oppressive legalized system of discrimination and segregation in the Jim Crow south, or a more subtle version of it that was in place in the north.

Most notably, the 1920s saw the Ku Klux Klan make a comeback, along with an increase in racial terror across the country. The black community, meanwhile, had certainly made gains in the little more than a half-century since the Civil War, but there was still a movement within the national community to show that they were equal to whites as a part of their continuous march toward winning equal treatment under the law. Thus, anyone who had proven to be distinguished in their field of choice and who could identify as black, was urged to publicly embrace that identity in order to lift the community up and prove to the greater country that they were not an inferior race.

All of this was still approximately 20 years before the color barrier would be broken in any major North American sport. Segregation was customary for these times, and despite the alleged notion of "separate, but equal", it was common sense to everyone that there was nothing equal about the type of treatment whites received compared to blacks. In other words, there were clear, rational reasons for my great-grandfather to pass as white. But, in spite of the rational logic behind his decision, what really struck me about him going ahead with it, came when I learned just how important race appeared to have been to his father's identity. 

The Other Barrier-Breaker 

Source: January 6, 1893 edition of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

Charles Brookins Sr. (known to most as C.R. Brookins) was born in 1850 in Charlottesville, Virginia. For those of you know your history, you can probably guess where I am going from here. Charles Sr. was a black man living in the antebellum south, and he was not one of the fortunate 10% of the black population living in Virginia in 1850 who was legally free. I have yet to discover the family that owned my second great-grandfather, but based on an Iowa City Press-Citizen newspaper article from a lecture that he gave in Iowa City in 1893, he came from a rather large plantation that had upwards of 275 slaves and 10,000 acres of land. (I have not been able to verify the accuracy of those numbers.) After the Civil War, he was considered a free man, and thanks to the radical Republicans of the day and their push for reconstruction, he was able to attend Wayland Seminary in Washington D.C. and was eventually ordained as a minister in 1879 before moving to Iowa in 1880, where he would serve in various black churches throughout southeastern Iowa over the next decade.

Source: Dec. 31, 1892 edition of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

In 1892 a newspaper clipping from the New Year’s Eve edition of the Press-Citizen made reference to the aforementioned lecture, and stated that he was “endeavoring to fit himself in the university for educational work among his people in the south.” Meanwhile, an article from three weeks later stated that he was leaving Iowa City to run a school in Muchakinock, Iowa. It also mentioned that he was “the first colored man to pass successfully the examination for teacher’s certificate in this county.”

Muchakinock was a small, racially-integrated coal-mining town just south of Oskaloosa that existed from the late 19th century until just barely after the turn of the 20th. It was an unincorporated town that was run by the Consolidation Coal Company, and it became racially-integrated in 1880 when the company—in an attempt to break the current strike that their workers had gone on—sent a representative to Virginia to hire free black workers as strikebreakers. 

And come they did, as Virginia became increasingly unfriendly to African Americans with the end of Reconstruction in 1877, and Jim Crow starting to take shape not long after. Mostly it was people who wanted to work in the coal mines who came to Muchakinock, but others who wanted to set up their own businesses or pursue other ventures also made the journey. (Charles Sr. appears to have also made this same journey, as you will recall that he showed up in a boarding house in Oskaloosa in 1880.) As a result, the town became a vibrant community in which black and white families worked, went to school, and interacted with each other on a regular basis. This was the case for about two decades until the mines shutdown and many of the miners and their families moved to Buxton, a more historically well-documented and racially-integrated town in southeastern Iowa that was also run by the Consolidation Coal Company.

“the first colored man to pass successfully the examination for teacher’s certificate in this county.”

From what I can piece together, Charles Sr. seems to have become somewhat of a pillar in the Muchakinock community, serving as both the principal of the local school and the minister of the local African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church. By 1902, an article in the The Bystander—a black newspaper based out of Des Moines—listed him and his family as one of the handful of “the land marks left” in the town. He would spend the next few years giving sermons at different venues throughout central and south east Iowa before falling off the map in 1905. The last record I have found of him comes from a state of Iowa Census, showing that he and his family were living in East Des Moines Township, which was another small place located not too far from Muchakinock. He did not appear in the 1910 Census, and appears to have passed away between 1905 and 1910.

Source: Jan. 6, 1893 edition of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

Based on his past as a slave, the lecture he gave in Iowa City on "The New South," and the work he did for the communities he served once he was free, it appears to me that his black heritage played a key role in the formation of his identity. This is what makes it so fascinating to me that his son, my great-grandfather, would choose to identify as white. Trying to understand it to the best of my abilities, there are a few hypotheses that I have formulated to try and allow myself to step into his shoes, and better understand how, in one generation, a family could go from openly embracing and working toward the advancement of African Americans to completely hiding that background.

The first was that he was so young when his father passed that he may not have remembered or have ever been told much about his father's life and experiences. This could have been the case, since Charles Jr. would have been between five and 11 when his father appears to have passed away. This story is probably unlikely, though, based on the fact that his race appears to have been an open secret in black newspapers of the time and by people close to him. Although, maybe he was never told of his father's past life as a slave (I found no mention of this in any newspaper or book that discussed Charles Jr.'s race) and never fully understand the way in which race seemed to play such a crucial part in the formation of his father’s identity.

In other accounts of passing, some people are pressured by parents to live as a white person in order to have access to a better life. This makes intuitive sense, considering parents normally want a better life for their children. And this seemed like it could have been plausible if Charles Jr.'s father had died and his mother decided to raise him as white. However, this also feels doubtful because his mother and older brother both identified as “black” or “mulatto” on every Census through 1940, which would seem to signify that they were open about accepting their racial background. His older brother was even married to a white woman in 1930, and he still listed himself as “black" on the Census. Meanwhile, it was Charles Jr. who identified as white in the 1940 Census. So unless his mother only pressured one son or he was the only one that listened, this theory does not seem to hold much water.

Instead, I feel the most likely explanation is that he made the conscious decision on his own to suppress his past due to the fact that he was such a public figure. As previously mentioned, life was much easier for a famous white athlete in the 1920s, as opposed to a famous black one. And once you step into that role of a famous black athlete, there is a lot of extracurricular stuff that falls on your lap that is outside of the realm of sports. Maybe he didn’t want to deal with the pressure and the politics that would come with it. Maybe he was afraid of the discrimination that would result from openly identifying as black. Even if he was fairly safe in his community, how would he be treated when he traveled to different venues around the Big Ten? Would he have to stay in a different hotel than the rest of the team if he publicly identified as black? What types of other discrimination might he face?

I may never know the real reason behind why he decided to pass as a white man, but at least this final hypothesis gives me a better understanding of why this would have been a rational decision for him to make. It would be easy for me to stand in the position that I am in today, and say that I would have embraced my racial background if I had been him. But knowing the pressures that were on him in the society in which he was living, I can honestly say that I don't know what I would have done if I were in his shoes. I may not outwardly condone him suppressing his past, but I also do not condemn him for making such a difficult decision.

I have been meaning to tell this story for a while now. I thought of writing something like this for the Olympics last year, but the timing seemed more appropriate right now. February is Black History Month, and while we should familiarize ourselves with black history for more than just one month out of the year, this seemed like the right time to bring a story to light that has always managed to be stay tucked away in the dark. 

Source: University of Iowa.

Some may be critical of my great-grandfather for not coming out and identifying as black at a moment in history when the African American community needed all the famous, talented, and bright figureheads they could get. I understand that sentiment, and I would be lying if I said there was not a part of me that wished I could say my great-grandfather had been a public figure who advocated for the equality of black people. But I would also be lying if I said I was not still proud of his accomplishments. Nobody is perfect—and based on the accounts of his multiple wives, he was certainly very far from it—but I am still proud to say that my great-grandfather was not only the first Iowa athlete to hold a world record, but he was also Iowa’s first black Olympian in track

I am also very proud of the Brookins’ family history that I have uncovered to date. My second great-grandfather was a slave who not only went on to learn how to read and become a minister, but he was apparently the first black man to earn a teaching certificate in Johnson County. The fact that he was born into a system that took his rights away and attempted to turn him into a piece of property, and yet he still went on to become an important figure in the black community in which he lived is an accomplishment of such magnitude that I could never hope to achieve anything even remotely close to it in my lifetime.

That the son of a slave could, in one generation, go on to become the world’s best in his sport and represent his country—the same country that had dehumanized and enslaved his ancestors—in the Olympics, should be a prime example of the generational mobility that exemplifies what the American Dream is supposed to be all about. It should be proof that in this country it does not matter your race, color, or creed; that no matter your circumstances, you can succeed here. And yet, the way this story actually unfolded, it would appear as proof of exactly the opposite.

On the final day of Black History Month, I challenge you to think long and hard about our country’s past. I encourage you to ask yourself why my great-grandfather’s story has never been told until now, and why it was to be kept hidden for almost an entire century before it could be brought to light. 

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