It’s easy to assume that generational talents like trail runner Joe Gray only come around once in a lifetime, but what if that didn’t have to be the case? What if proper representation in the distance running and trail world featured more Black runners like Joe, which would lead to a more inspired and racially-diverse running community? We wanted to learn more about Joe and his motivation and connection with the Sachs Foundation, a non-profit that provides scholarships to Black students across the state of Colorado. Read below about the incredible and inspiring history of the Sachs Foundation’s first scholar Dolphus Stroud, Joe and Dolphus’ incredible parallels, and Joe’s mission in the world of sport and beyond.

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Early in my journey, I found myself intrigued by the beautiful notion of distance running. I had been a basketball player throughout my childhood and was inspired by the likes of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Julius Erving because of their pursuit for greatness. As a young Black kid playing ball, there was no shortage of athletes whom you could aspire to be like. In fact, no matter what skin color you had, the NBA had someone who looked like you being promoted or advertised.

When I made the switch to distance running, it was a night and day difference. There were no competitive Black American distance runners featured in magazine articles or in print or broadcast advertisements. To compound the lack of diversity, there were also very few Black Americans being promoted by brands let alone receiving sponsorship contracts. Whenever you saw a Black person in outdoor media, they were usually models and not athletes competing at a high level.

I later ascertained, having elite athletes to aspire to was influential in other sports I had dabbled in. Like boxing, kids would buy the gloves and shoes they saw champions wearing. Having discussed this topic with friends who grew up playing other sports completely outside of my experience (such as skiing, fishing and even ice hockey), I found that they too were inspired by athletes chasing greatness. Thus, the products the best in the business promoted were usually the products they too desired. Having an accomplished recognizable athlete to promote is powerful in the marketing of a product or sport. Providing youth an image that looks like them, one who is chasing greatness, is influential beyond just entertainment value. This can help kids dream as they chase goals larger than life. Inspiration can change lives. It can give someone hope in the midst of despair.

If I was a sprinter, I would have had plenty of athletes who looked like me, but trails were where my heart steered me. My mind wandered off into dreams of adventures in the mountains and exploring paths, finding out where I would end up after reaching its end. As I grew into the sport I started to find that my community found it odd that a Black man would be running in the mountains, let alone racing. “Why?” I thought to myself. But when I began to look for people who looked like me in the sport I had a hard time finding anyone. I would look at magazines as I became a professional in the sport and was shocked to see Black athletes were almost never found in outdoor magazines/media. Whenever I brought up camping, trail running or racing, I quickly realized why my community found these topics bizarre. If you took a look at ads during this time, you would get the idea that these activities weren’t for us. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “That’s for White people.”

My desire to inspire the next generation of young Black athletes to try distance running, outdoor sports and mountain running led me to the story of Kelly Dolphus Stroud. I came up with the idea to motivate the next generation through Project Inspire Diversity. I needed help reaching my community in the most effective manner, and the Sachs Foundation came onto my radar through recommendations from a close friend. The Foundation was born out of the need to aid Black families facing economic and educational discrimination, and Dolphus Stroud was the recipient of the Sachs Foundations’ first scholarship.

The Sachs Foundation is an Educational Foundation started by Henry Sachs in 1931. Henry Sachs who was Jewish, and having faced his own discrimination, was very aware of the discrimination that the Black community of Colorado faced. The Sachs Foundation provides College Scholarships to Black students across Colorado.

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Upon first meeting with the current Sachs Foundation president Ben Ralston, my eyes and ears were fixated as he shared the story of Dolphus. I often have shared my story of how rough the road for a Black athlete can be in acquiring support in the outdoor sports world where the majority of sponsored athletes and advertising revolve around White athletes. When Dolphus was growing up in the early 1900s, racism was the norm; in truth, it was accepted all around him. Dolphus and his family were constantly victims of racism. One of the reasons he and his family ended up in Colorado was due to the fact that Black Americans were not allowed to vote in Oklahoma – the Oklahoma State Legislature (1910) passed a “Grandfather Clause,” disenfranchising Black voters. So, on to Colorado the Stroud family went.

The road only got rockier for Dolphus and his family as they settled in Colorado Springs. Employment at the time was defined by the color of your skin despite your qualifications. Stroud’s father was a standout graduate of Langston University, yet due to his skin color he was not allowed to work in the local post office. He was deprived of a job equal to his qualifications so he was left to work in a coal mine as a means to support his family.

Dolphus overcame many of the racist realities around him, put his head down, persevered, and became remarkable both academically as well as athletically. Before graduating cum laude in 1931, while also becoming the first African American Phi Beta Kappa at Colorado College, he had already started to turn heads with his athletic abilities. Dolphus broke a long-standing record up and down Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs that had stood for 25 years. The fact that he was running up mountains at that time sounded crazy to me, but when you take into account that he was not allowed to run on the high school track team because he was Black, it all made sense. The mountain was a place of solace. I heard stories that Dolphus was often mocked and shouted at while training, even having to fill his pockets with rocks to throw at potential attackers. Thus, by running in the mountains he was able to shield the ugliness he often faced in town.

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Dolphus won the regional Track and Field Trials in the 5,000 meters on the track and the winner was to receive funding to attend the Olympic Trials in Boston. You can probably guess, but he was denied this award, simply due to the color of his skin. With little money, his heart and determination was all he had, so he set out for the trip of a lifetime. Dolphus made it to Boston just six hours before competing. How did he get there? He hitchhiked more than 2,000 miles from Denver to Boston, walking 30-50 miles per day, and arrived exhausted, hungry and broke. Despite the hand he was dealt, he still tried his best to race, though it sadly didn’t go as planned. He lost the race, but it was this drive for success that has inspired me. Many times athletes face challenges that seem insurmountable, until they are surmounted. A Black athlete in his time had to face the normal challenges of being an athlete plus the added obstacle of open racism.

I didn’t know connecting with the Sachs Foundation would ignite my efforts as much as they have. At times I have felt that my efforts were for naught due to the constant negativity I’ve had to face on social media for speaking up about the lack of diversity within trail running. It took me time to realize that many would be fine with maintaining the status quo for obvious reasons. Maybe it doesn’t affect them, maybe they don’t see the whole picture or just maybe, they don’t want to see CHANGE. Hearing the story of Dolphus Stroud lit a match under me. His athletic journey sounded a lot like mine: any terrain, any time! I’ve always valued one’s ability to stand out across multiple disciplines. For much of my career, versatility has been the focus. Being a face for young athletes to see across different types of distance running has become important to my goals outside of my personal journey, and Dolphus’ story was gas to the fire that burned inside.

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I’ve witnessed many great social activists silenced. Some have fought through relentless negativity and attempts from others to silence them. In the end, the ones that fought past the negativity and kept the bigger picture in focus led a charge to the greatest changes. This is why the story of Dolphus Stroud is important to history and our future. His story serves as a time-stamped message to the current market of the outdoor world as a whole. Much of the battles Dolphus had to deal with have mutated. Racism doesn’t look quite like it did during his athletic career, but the lack of focus on athletes of color today has created roadblocks similar to what evident racism did to Dolphus and other Black athletes in the early 1900s. Their ability to chase their dreams was difficult based on the color of their skin.

One would assume that the struggle of athletes of color so long ago would have led to change. You would think they paved the way for athletes of my generation, or that diversity would exist in all sports. But not enough has changed as we have witnessed repeatedly. Our country and our sport clearly still has a long way to go. The story of Dolphus as well as countless others in the present day are a constant reminder.

I felt something in my soul when I heard the stories of Dolphus. I felt cheated as a Black mountain runner that his story wasn’t being recognized or shared. When I was searching for someone who looked like me in this sport as many other athletes of color have also done, there was no media within major channels in my sport sharing the inspirational story of Mr. Stroud. To know there was a Black athlete winning mountain races in the early 1920s and setting records is beyond inspirational. To know Dolphus and I have a shared history of being champions on the same mountain is awe-inspiring. Dolphus is that trail running pioneer for the Black community that the trail community failed to recognize. He not only deserved, but should have been acknowledged for his accomplishments.

The ability to inspire Black athletes in the trail space has been limited by the lazy attempts of some brands using models instead of true pioneers who chase or have chased greatness in the face of adversity. His story is one that I will share with my kids and one that I hope will spark motivation in not only young athletes of color, but also within the minds of brand managers and those who influence media, and the greater world. To understand the importance diversity plays within society is a priceless quality. #TimeToFly
-Joseph Gray (@joegeezi)

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After Dolphus Stroud, the Sachs Foundation has gone on to support over 3,000 Black students through our scholarship programs. Currently, there are 209 Sachs Scholars on scholarship to study at 75 different colleges and universities across the country. To support the foundation is to support the mission of supporting Black youth wherever you are located. To support the Sachs Foundation directly, we are a 501(c)3 and funds donated get passed directly to our scholars.