Black NB sprint star from the early 1900’s honored at national championships
Maurice Eatmon has made it his life’s work to share the legacy of Eldridge Eatman – a New Brunswick man who set land speed records at the turn of the 20th century.
Around 20 years of work will pay off on Saturday when Eatman is honored nationally for the first time. A ceremony will be held in his honor at the Canadian Indoor Track & Field Championships at Saint John’s Irving Oil Field House, hosted by Athletics Canada and Saint John Reds Track & Field Club.
“It means the world to me,” Maurice said of the national recognition and ceremony, which will unveil a plaque commemorating Eatman’s remarkable life at the Feldhaus.
Maurice is family—he’s Eatman’s third cousin, though he spells his last name Eatmon, a variant chosen by his father.
Eldridge Eatman was born in 1880 in Zealand Station, now known simply as Zealand, a small community about 20 miles northwest of Fredericton.
When he died 80 years later, he held a record as one of the fastest men in the world, had spent 785 days in the trenches of World War I, and raised money to fight against Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia.
And he did so at a time when black athletes were not welcome in amateur athletics and few were competing professionally.
Bill MacMackin, president of the city’s athletics club, has known Maurice for about a decade and has helped him recognize Eatman’s importance.
Eatman is inducted into both the Saint John and New Brunswick Sports Halls of Fame. It was MacMackin who started the process of national recognition.
“It’s an amazing story,” said MacMackin. “We just thought it would be something nice to commemorate, especially here at a national event. And close to where he ran.”
Who was Eldridge Eatman?
In 1903, Eatman beat American sprint champion Thomas F. Keen in a 120-yard dash at the Moose Path, which MacMackin said was about a hundred yards from where the Field House is today.
In 1905, he set a Canadian record when he ran 100 yards in 9.8 seconds, compared to Usain Bolt’s 100-yard record of 109 yards, which is 9.58 seconds. And in Edinburgh, Scotland, Eldridge won the 1906 Powderhall Trophy, essentially the world championship.
But being black in the early 20th century wasn’t easy.
“The civil rights movements happened in the 1960s. So it ran at the beginning of the century [imagine] how much more difficult would it have been,” Maurice said.
He said Eatman was treated well when he won but was subjected to racial slurs when he lost.
Maurice said Eatman is as much a barrier-breaker as Jackie Robinson is in baseball or Willie O’Ree is in hockey.
And he befriended other black athletes, Maurice said, such as Jack Johnson, the American boxer who became the first black world heavyweight champion in 1908.
During World War I, when black volunteers in Canada were turned away from recruiting stations and told it was a white man’s war, Eatman joined the British Army.
He served with the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers and spent more than two years in the trenches before being injured in his leg in France.
Years later, he recruited volunteers and raised funds to fight against Benito Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.
struggle for recognition
Maurice never met Eatman, who died in Saint John in 1960, five years after Maurice was born.
He heard stories about his cousin but said he didn’t really understand it as a kid.
“Then I finally did some research, found his obituary and everything else, and it says World Champion. I said, ‘there’s more to it than that.’”
Now that he’s researched his life, Maurice feels he knows Eatman better than himself.
“When you find out something new about him or whatever, it’s almost like something spiritual.”