John Armstrong (“Army”) Howard, sprinter, soldier (born 6 October 1888 in Winnipeg, MB; died 9 January 1937 in Winnipeg). John Armstrong Howard competed in the 1912 Olympic Summer Games in Stockholm, making him Canada’s first Black Olympic athlete. He later served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and the Canadian Army Medical Corps during the First World War. He won a bronze medal in the 100 m dash at the 1919 Inter-Allied Games in Paris. Howard was the grandfather of sprinters Valerie and Harry Jerome, who also represented Canada in track and field at the Olympics.
John Armstrong Howard was born 6 October 1888 in Winnipeg to parents Robert and Cornelia. In 1907, John found work as a mechanic at Crescent Creamery. Standing six-foot-three, he was tall, with a slender yet powerful frame. Howard’s athletic prowess was readily apparent to those who saw him compete. When not working, he competed in local track and field competitions and played catcher for the creamery’s baseball team. Eventually, he turned his focus toward sprinting, winning amateur championships in Manitoba.
Howard qualified for Canada’s track and field squad at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. Heading into the competition, he was widely lauded as one of Canada’s best bets at landing an Olympic medal. In the process, he became Canada’s first Black Olympian. Howard represented Canada in the 100 and 200 m sprints, along with the 4X100 and 4X400 m relay races.
However, Howard’s Olympic experience got off to a poor start. During training, he feuded with Canadian track coach Walter Knox. In an era of profound racism and discrimination toward Black athletes, Knox continually accused Howard of being rebellious and disobedient. He tried to have Howard kicked off the team, but the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada intervened and determined Knox’s complaint to be unwarranted.
Howard remained on the team and travelled to Stockholm, Sweden. But a stomach ailment and lingering anxiety over tensions with Knox are believed to have severely hampered his performance. He did not reach the podium in either the 100 or 200 m events. The Canadian team was eliminated in the first round of the 4X400 m race and in the semifinals of the 4X100 m relay.
After he returned to Canada, Howard reestablished himself as an athletic force. He entered multiple races at the 1913 Canadian Outdoor championships and reportedly won all of them.
First World War
After the First World War broke out in 1914, Howard enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He originally served as a private in the 1st Depot Battalion of the Manitoba Regiment. Howard travelled to England in late 1917 as a member of the Canadian Railway Troops. He put his mechanic’s skills to work as a “sapper” repairing and constructing railroads.
He was then transferred to the 11th and 18th Canadian Reserve Battalions, which reinforced infantry on the Western Front. His military service drew to a close after he joined the Canadian Army Medical Corps; he is believed to have been a stretcher-bearer transporting wounded soldiers from the battlefield to English army hospitals.
During the time he was positioned overseas, Howard returned to track and field. He competed in the 1919 Inter-Allied Games in Paris and won the bronze medal in the 100 m dash.
Family Life and Death
While serving in England, Howard met his wife, Edith Elizabeth Lipscomb. They settled in Winnipeg and were married on 16 June 1920. However, the mixed-race couple faced hostility and discrimination in the Manitoba community of Ste. Rose du Lac. They eventually moved to the northwest shore of Lake Manitoba, near the Crane River Indian Reserve. (See Reserves in Manitoba.) John and Edith had three children together but eventually divorced.
Family and Legacy
Howard’s lineage continued to represent Canada in international track and field. Two of his grandchildren, siblings Valerie and Harry Jerome, were standout athletes. Valerie Jerome and her 4X100 m relay team won bronze at the 1959 Pan American Games and participated in the 100 m race at the 1960 Olympic Summer Games in Rome. Harry Jerome became one of Canada’s greatest sprinters. He broke the Canadian record in the 220-yard dash when he was only 18 years old. He also set or equalled world records in the 60-yard indoor dash, the 100-yard dash, the 100 m sprint and the 440-yard relay. A three-time Olympian, he won a bronze medal in the 100 m dash at the 1964 Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo. He also won gold medals at the 1966 Commonwealth Games and the 1967 Pan American Games.
In 2004, 67 years after his death, John Armstrong Howard was inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.
See also Trailblazing Black Canadian Athletes.