Woman to Watch: Deborah Riley Draper



Many of us can recognize a good story, but a storyteller finds a good story and has the passion to dig deeper. That passion and innate curiosity is what drives our Woman To Watch: Deborah Riley Draper.

“As a filmmaker you look for these unique stories and as you research and you’re writing, your curiosity is peaked – and when you find something like this one – it’s only natural to bring these stories to light,” she shared.

Several years ago, Draper was researching a project on Nazi Germany, and found a brief mention of a boat that carried 18 African Americans home to the United States after competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. That was never part of any history Draper had learned about, and I dare say it wasn’t in any of the history books we had in school.

“I started researching to find out if this was the case, and it was,” she told me.

For four years Draper poured through incomplete news accounts, inaccurate photo captions and more to discover that the 18 athletes braved Jim Crow laws in the United States and the climate of Nazi Germany to compete in the games.

“All these different movements were happening. All of these socio-economic changes were happening in our country, while in Germany they were going through their own change as well,” said Draper.

“This was a hot bed and these men and women were able to bridge the gap,” she continued.

Our history books (at least some of them) will tell us about the African American Jesse Owens, who competed in the games and won a gold medal in track and field. Draper pointed out that leaving out the stories of the other 17 athletes who competed is an illustration of the implicit biases and marginalization in place in society, in 1936 and now.


Draper says that bias is something that impacts the people that find themselves the target and the rest of their community.

“In this story a lot of the players decided to give each other a chance, and when you do that, you create the best teams. When you make a decision on who you want to be on your team, based on who is the best, you’re getting a mixed team. I learned that we do ourselves a disservice when we bring this bias, and we can’t have the most exceptional teams,” she said.

While the inclusion of the 18 athletes on the U.S. Team was excluded from media coverage and historical representations, Draper says she was pleased to learn in her research that in 1936 communities and policy makers had dialogues about issues of racism and Jim Crow laws. I found her point ironic since rationale conversation seems to be so far beyond us in our “progressive” 21st Century.

“The lessons we would learn is that we already know everything we need to make this country great. What we have to do is get out of our own way. We have to be honest and caring and considerate of our fellow Americans, and remember that all of our fellow Americans deserve the right to be equal, the right to be heard and the right to be respected,” she said.

As a freelance video producer myself, and one who has experienced life playing in the “man’s world” of filmmaking, I asked Draper about her own experience with implicit bias and marginalization.

“I’m a marginalized voice. I’m a black woman from the south with a camera, who loves telling stories about marginalized communities. Stories that weren’t interesting to mainstream media. Stories that fade into obscurity because of who the characters are,” she shared.

Thanks to Draper the story is anything but fading. “Olympic Pride American Prejudice” is debuting this week in New York and Los Angeles in time for the Rio Olympics which begin this Friday.

And as how Draper will view and regard the 2016 Olympic Games …

“I will watch these with great pride, because those 18 athletes that broke the barrier, they laid the groundwork for an American team that’s so beautifully diverse, and so richly talented with men, with women, with people of color,” she said.

Her pride is contagious. I think I will feel the same way as I watch the games.

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