Feb 6 2023
127: Frank Hart – Part 2: World Record Holder
By Davy Crockett
You can read, listen, or watch
Read the full story of Frank Hart in my new book: Frank Hart: The First Black Ultrarunning Star
Frank Hart, at age 22, broke through racial barriers with his fourth-place finish in the 5th Astley Belt Race in Madison Square Garden, held in September 1879. Despite being black, Hart became a local hero in his hometown of Boston, Massachusetts. He had proven himself worthy of praise, competing on the grandest sporting stage in the world.
The ultrarunning/pedestrian promoters, backers, and bookmakers had allowed for diversity in this most popular spectator sport in America of that time. But was an American public ready to accept a black champion, just 15 years since the end of the bloody Civil War, with racial bigotry still prevalent in nearly all aspects of society? Hart, an immigrant from Haiti (see Part 1), had not grown up in slavery, and had the determination to reach the highest level of the sport in 1880, if he would be allowed.
After the good training he received from O’Leary, and with his recent success, fame, and fortune, he was ready to go out on his own. He hired his own trainer/handler, John D. Oliver (1860-1914), age 19, who became better known as “Happy Jack Smith.” Smith was originally from Richmond, Virginia, born to Irish parents. Within months he became recognized as the best pedestrian trainer in America. He developed a reputation for being able to keep his runners in the competition to the bitter end.
J. J. Gottlob
Hart also needed a manager/agent. He again turned to a very young, unproven, but dynamic talent. He hired nineteen-year-old Jacob Julius “J.J.” Gottlob (1860-1933). Gottlob, a commercial traveler and theater man with west coast ties, took interest in pedestrianism. He would become known as the “Dean of Pacific Coast Theater managers.” As he acquired money, he would be Hart’s backer for several years.
The Rose Belt
With these two young men to look after him, in December 1879, Hart went to compete at the next big six-day tournament, the “Great International Six-Day Race” or “Rose Belt” held in Madison Square Garden in New York City. The manager of the race was Daniel Eugene Rose (1846-1927) of New York City, a pedestrian promoter and owner of the D. E. Rose cigarette manufacturing company. This was perhaps the largest six-day race in history with 65 starters.
An expensive Rose Belt, valued at $400, was created for the winner, with seven rectangular sections. The center section included a globe with running figures and colored flags, and the words, “American International Champion of the World.”
About 200 scorers were employed. Scores were displayed on dials for each runner. Each runner had a big number both on their chest and on their back. Hart was not the only black runner in the field, there were three others, Edward Williams of New York City, Paul Molyneaux Hewlett (1856-1891) of Boston, and William H. Jacob Pegram (1846-1913) of Boston, who would often run together with Hart on laps. Pegram was a former slave from Sussex, Virginia. He won a small 60-hour race in Brighton, Massachusetts against whites, a month before Hart started competing. Pegram spoke in a thick southern black dialect that at times was mocked by the press.
After the first day, December 22, 1879, Hart was in second place with 117 miles. On day two, after Peter J. Panchot (1841-1917), of Buffalo, New York, withdrew from the race, Hart took over first place. By evening, only 48 of the 65 starters remained in the race.
On Christmas Eve, day three, the race continued, and Hart lost the lead in the evening to Christian Faber (1848-1908), of Newark, New Jersey, when he went to get some sleep. Grumbles were heard by those with wagers on Hart, worried that he would not return. But Hart had not had very much sleep and needed it badly. He returned at midnight to kick off day four.