Ben Johnson
Johnson in 1933
Personal information
Birth nameBenjamin Washington Johnson
Virginia, US
Died1992 (aged 77–78)
Height5 ft 7 in (1.70 m)
Weight150 lb (68 kg)

Benjamin Washington Johnson (1914–1992) was an American sprinter who was considered a serious rival to Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens. Known as the "Columbia Comet", Johnson was the United States champion at 100 yards in 1938, but injuries and the outbreak of the Second World War denied him a chance to compete in the Olympics.

In later life he became one of the first African-Americans to attain the rank of colonel in the United States Army.

Early life

Ben Johnson was born in Hamilton, Cumberland County, Virginia, on July 24, 1914.[1] His mother, Ellen Washington, was the great aunt of actor Denzel Washington. According to the 1915 New York Census, he and his parents were living at 788 Union Street, Brooklyn in an apartment above the horse stable where Johnson’s father worked. By 1920, Johnson and his family had moved back to Hamilton. After his father died, Johnson moved with his mother first to Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, and then, about 1929, to Plymouth, Pennsylvania.[2] He attended Plymouth High School (aka Ward P. Davenport High School), where, beginning in his freshman year, he was a member of the track and field team. In May 1930, he and his teammates competed in the Pennsylvania state finals at Altoona, Pennsylvania, where Johnson placed third in the 220 yard dash.[3] Johnson continued his track success as a junior, breaking state records in the 100 and 220 yard dash.[4] He was invited to compete in the 1932 United States Olympic Trials in California, but initially declined because of the cost of travel. Local residents raised the necessary funds to pay for the trip, calling it the "Ben Johnson Olympic Fund,"[5][6] but at the trials, Johnson was eliminated in the 200 meter heats.[7]

College track career

After graduating from Plymouth High School, Johnson entered Columbia University, where he majored in political science, while competing as a member of the Columbia Lions track team.[5]

During the 1935 season, Johnson won the AAU indoor title at 60 meters, equaling Jesse Owens's world best time of 6.6 seconds set earlier in the day. However, injury curtailed the remainder of the season.

In 1936, the Olympic year, he was injured in the AAU Championships a week before the Olympic Trials.[8]

In 1937 at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) outdoor championships, Johnson, now known by the moniker "The Columbia Comet",[4] won titles as 100 yards, 220 yards, and the long jump - the first athlete in the twentieth century to do so.,[8] That year he also won the NCAA 220 yard title.[9]

In 1938, at the Millrose Games, he won the 60 yard title in a reputed new world's best time of 6.0 seconds. However, the time was not accepted and so he had to be content with being credited with a time of 6.1 s, simply equaling the world's best time up to that point.[10][11] In 1938, he also claimed his third AAU indoor title at 60 yards, having won previously in 1935 and 1937.[12]

Johnson won the 100 yards in the AAU (USA National Track and Field) Championships in 1938.[13] In the AAU championships, he was also 6th in 1936, 2nd in 1937 and 5th in 1939. As a result of such runs, in the 1938 season he was considered the world's pre-eminent sprinter. His season was curtailed unfortunately by him suffering from a bout of measles.[8]

Later life

After graduation from college, Johnson taught at the Bordertown Manual Training School, in Bordentown, New Jersey.[8]

He joined the United States Army in 1942, eventually reaching the rank of Colonel—one of the first African-Americans to do so.[4][6] He left the army in 1968 to resume his education, earning a master's degree from Maryland University.[5][14]

Afterwards, Johnson lived at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania where he worked as a bureau director for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, heading the department's affirmative action program.[5][11] He died on December 17, 1992, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.[15] His only child, Norbert Carl Benjamin Johnson, had died earlier that year. He is survived by his granddaughter Lauren Johnson.

Accolades and awards



  1. ^ Date and place of birth stated on World War II Draft Card, Benjamin Washington Johnson, Industrial School, Bordentown, New Jersey, signed and dated October 16, 1940. He listed his mother as Ellen W. Johnson.
  2. ^ Johnson and his mother appear in the 1930 US Census at 307 East Main Street, Plymouth, living in the household of Clara McAlarney. Their surname was mistakenly listed as Conroy, rather than Johnson.
  3. ^ Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, May 28, 1930, page 21.
  4. ^ a b c Brett Hoover. "Ben Johnson". Ivy league. Retrieved January 13, 2015.
  5. ^ a b c d John Erzar (December 5, 1999). "SPRINTER SHOWED WORLD-CLASS SPEED IN THE 1930S". Times Leader. Archived from the original on February 6, 2015. Retrieved January 13, 2015.
  6. ^ a b Bill Kashatus (May 25, 2015). "Plymouth's Ben Johnson once considered world's fastest sprinter". citizensvoice.comColumbia University Athletics. Retrieved January 13, 2015.
  7. ^ The History of the United States Olympic Trials - Track & Field, R Hymans, USA Track & Field, 2008
  8. ^ a b c d "BEN JOHNSON track and field". Columbia University Athletics. Retrieved January 12, 2015.
  9. ^[permanent dead link]
  10. ^ Sheldon Shepard (July 1960). "Relax and Be Strong". The Rotarian.
  11. ^ a b Tim Vecsey (January 20, 1988). "SPORTS OF THE TIMES; The Other Ben Johnson". The New York Times.
  12. ^ "UNITED STATES INDOOR CHAMPIONSHIPS (MEN)". Retrieved January 12, 2015.
  13. ^ Archived 2014-04-25 at the Wayback Machine USA Outdoor Track and Field Champions, Men's 100 m, USA Track and Field.
  14. ^ Thomas Rogers, Roy S. Johnson and Jack Cavanaugh (September 7, 1987). "SPORTS WORLD SPECIALS; From Another Era". The New York Times.
  15. ^ "Burial detail: Johnson, Benjamin W". ANC Explorer. Retrieved February 18, 2023.
  16. ^ Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, October 27, 1971, page 17.
  17. ^ "The Wyoming Valley Sports Hall Of Fame Announces Its First Annual Selection". WV Sports H.O.F. Retrieved January 13, 2015.
  18. ^ "1985 inductees, Luzerne County Sports Hall of Fame". Retrieved November 29, 2017.
  19. ^ "The Columbia University Athletics Hall of Fame". Columbia University Athletics. Archived from the original on February 22, 2014. Retrieved January 13, 2015.