Midnight Express

With 300 wins and only seven losses in an illustrious short career, Sprinter Thomas Edward ‘Eddie’ Tolan, earned the nickname “Midnight Express.” Born in 1908, he moved with his family from Salt Lake City to Detroit in 1924 for better employment opportunities. A phenomenal athlete, Tolan attended Cass Technical High School, and excelled as a quarterback on the football field and a sprinter on the track and field team. Tolan furthered his athletic career as a sprinter at The University of Michigan, where as a sophomore in 1929, Tolan broke the Big Ten Conference record and tied the world’s record for the 100 yard dash at 9.5 seconds. After graduating in 1931, he continued his record-setting performances.

As the 1932 Summer Olympics loomed, Dean Cromwell, Chairman of the All American Board of Track and Field, predicted great things for Tolan. On August 3, 1932, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Tolan, with horn-rimmed glasses affixed to his head and a mouthful of chewing gum, broke the Olympic record in the 100 meter race with a time of 10.3 seconds. Later that day he also set the Olympic record time for the 200 meter race with a time of 21.2 seconds. With two gold-medal wins, Tolan was dubbed the “World’s Fastest Human,” the first African-American to hold that distinction. Michigan, and the city of Detroit, responded with a welcoming reception at the train station, and Governor Wilbur M. Brucker declared September 6, 1932 as Eddie Tolan Day.

Hard times followed six months after winning Olympic gold, Tolan’s parents had been unemployed for months, and he was unable to support himself and them. Tolan briefly appeared with Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson in vaudeville, but because of his brief appearance, the Michigan Amateur Athletic Association stripped Tolan of his amateur status in June of 1933.

Sep. 13, 1967

Tolan became a professional sprinter in November 1934. He left his job at the Registrar of Deeds office to compete in Australia. After setting records in Australia including events at the World Professional Sprint Championship, in March 1935, Tolan returned to Detroit. As a career sprinter, Tolan became the first man to win both amateur and professional championships.

Tolan returned to his job as a Clerk with the Registrar of Deeds, and worked a variety of jobs in the 1940s and 50s. He became a physical and health education teacher and taught at Irving Elementary School on Detroit’s West Side for several years.

In 1967, Tolan died from heart failure at the age of 58. He is interred at United Memorial Gardens in Plymouth. After his death, Edward Tolan Playfield along Mack Avenue and Chrysler Freeway was named in his honor.

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