The name Ralph Metcalfe can evoke many images. A record-breaking Olympic sprinter. A trailblazing United States representative. A hardworking graduate of Marquette University.
But for New Yorker Nasser Metcalfe, he will always just see his loving grandfather.
“This beautiful community carries the name Metcalfe,” said Metcalfe’s grandson, who shared some words on behalf of his family during an event showcasing the latest effort by the city of Milwaukee to honor Metcalfe’s legacy.
“I declare today that we are all Metcalfes — every last one of us — and that his name and his work and his legacy and all that it means will continue within all of us and our future generations,” he added as he held Ralph Metcalfe’s watch and spoke to a crowd of residents.
The ceremony held in Milwaukee’s Metcalfe Rising Park at 3401 W. Center St. on Saturday unveiled the renaming of part of the roughly four-mile stretch of North 34th Street — a main street discontinuously threading from Metcalfe Park near West Meinecke Avenue toward Glendale. The honorary street name will be applied to the signs lining 34th Street from West North Avenue to West Center Street.
This is not the first time the city has celebrated Metcalfe, who also has a west side park, school and neighborhood named after him.
The event drew residents, both young and old, to his namesake park, where organizers also distributed community resources on voting and housing.
“I’m blessed to be on the block that I grew up on and to see the name change,” said Melody McCurtis, deputy director of Metcalfe Park Community Bridges, which hosted the ceremony.
“We are going to celebrate this historic moment and we are going to keep going,” she added. “It’s almost like Ralph Metcalfe has passed the torch to our community.”
Many members of the area were present, including District 15 Ald. Russell W. Stamper II, whose district includes the sites renamed to honor Metcalfe, and the district’s former alderman, Willie Hines Jr., as well as Wisconsin Black Historical Society founder and director Clayborn Benson.
Benson was one of the people who submitted an application to have the signs renamed to honor Metcalfe, which was later approved by the city’s Common Council.
“We’re not just simply talking about a student who comes to Marquette and runs track,” Benson said. “He was engaged in this community.”
Who was Ralph Metcalfe?
Born in Atlanta in 1910, Metcalfe was primarily raised and went to school in Chicago.
It was during his time at high school that he started his long and fruitful career as a track athlete. After graduating in 1930, Metcalfe moved to Milwaukee, where he enrolled at Marquette University.
It was there his fame took root and his impact on the city began.
Metcalfe was named America’s top sprinter between 1932 and 1934, according to his Marquette University biography.
He competed in the 1936 Olympics held in Nazi Germany, where he and Jesse Owens ran for the U.S. Olympic team in the 400-meter relay. They ultimately took home gold. Metcalfe also won a silver medal in the 100 meters, losing to Owens. Metcalfe then retired from competitive sports.
Following a career as a teacher and coach and later serving in World War II, Metcalfe entered the political sphere, rising up from director of Chicago’s Department of Civil Rights to city alderman and temporary City Council president to a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in the span of 30 years.
During his time as a politician, Metcalfe helped found the Congressional Black Caucus and co-sponsored legislation that would ultimately declare February as Black History Month.
On Oct. 10, 1978, Metcalfe died suddenly of an apparent heart attack. He was 68 years old.
Contact Vanessa Swales at 414-308-5881 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Vanessa_Swales.