Kelley Dolphus Stroud might have been an Olympic medalist if it weren’t for the color of his skin.
It was 1928, and Stroud, the only Black student at Colorado College until his sister joined him a year later, qualified for a U.S. Olympic tryout spot in the 5,000-meter race. It was a victory to celebrate, until he was informed there would be no funding for him to travel to Boston for the Olympic trials due to racism.
“People said to him that’s the way life is,” said his great-nephew Frank Shines. “And to recognize that and focus on his pursuits at CC.”
But Dolphus, who went by his middle name, was undaunted. He decided to hitchhike to Boston in the middle of July.
“He walked the majority of the 2,000 miles,” Shines said. “It was mostly dirt roads and mostly buggies. He’d hitch a ride on a buggy and get upset at how slow they were going. He said I can run faster, so he got out. Otherwise, he said I’d never make it there in time.”
Dolphus arrived six hours before he was set to compete. Broken down, starving and exhausted, he collapsed during his sixth lap and watched his Olympic dream fizzle.
“RACE,” a new jazz, R&B, gospel and hip-hop-influenced opera, is inspired by his life. It’s the brain child of Shines, a dramaturge, who, along with Springs librettists Idris Goodwin and Ashley Cornelius, and International Brazilian Opera Company art directors Athena Azevedo, João MacDowell and Christina Morgan, will bring the full opera to stages in Paris, New York City and the Springs in 2024.
In partnership with Pioneers Museum and IBOC, Stroud family members will present a free workshop performance of the opera Saturday at the museum. Registration is required. Go online to cspm.org.
“The Stroud family is known for studying classical music and literature,” Shines said. “Everyone had to have an instrument they played. Opera is the most athletic performance under any performing art. We’ve brought home athleticism and a discipline that represented Dolphus and his journey.”
Goodwin, a successful playwright who most recently served as director of Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College, and Cornelius, Pikes Peak Library District’s Pikes Peak poet laureate, were selected to write the opera after months of interviews.
The story of Dolphus moved Cornelius.
“Knowing how good you are and being able to prove that, but you have limited resources and you have to walk most of the distance to a space where you can prove it,” she said. “And he failed, but that doesn’t discount all the work. It’s process not product. When you don’t accomplish the biggest goal, that doesn’t mean it’s over. That doesn’t mean you haven’t started a legacy.”
Dolphus was one of 11 children born to Rev. K.D. (Kimball Dolphus) Stroud and Lulu McGee Stroud, who moved the family from the Oklahoma Territory to the Springs in 1910 with the hopes of leaving prejudice and oppression behind. Dolphus attended Bristol School and Colorado Springs High School (now Palmer High School), where he wasn’t allowed to run track due to his color. He also went on to win the Pikes Peak Marathon several times, even breaking the record in 1928.
After returning from his devastating failed journey east, Dolphus graduated from CC with a degree in political science and moved to Forsyth, Ga., to work at the State Teachers and Agricultural College as an athletics coach and political science teacher. He later earned a master’s from University of Mexico with a treatise chronicling the history of Black people in the U.S. and eventually moved to Portland, Ore. He died in 1975.
Shines never met his relative, but heard the stories of the humble, yet confident athlete and academic. As he dug deeper into his kin, he found many similarities between them, including their interest in math, science and physics. That realization inspired Shines in his schooling at the Air Force Academy, where he trained and competed with Olympic athletes on the AFA’s men’s gymnastics team.
“I saw so much of him in me,” Shines said. “He understood how to brand and market himself. He spent time cultivating relationships with the press to get his story out. He understand the power of the written word and history. He understood this was historical in some way.”
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