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In Los Angeles, a Tree With Stories to Tell

LOS ANGELES — In 1920s Los Angeles, a young boy refined his talents in the backyard of his family’s modest bungalow — running and jumping, running and jumping.

The hard work got him far, all the way to the Olympics. Twice in fact, first to the games in Los Angeles in 1932, and then four years later to Berlin. It was in Germany where the young man, Cornelius Johnson, had his greatest triumph, one that transcended sport, defined his short life and established him as an important figure in the pre-Civil Rights era.

On the first day of competition in Berlin, Mr. Johnson became America’s first champion of the Games, winning gold in the high jump. In a photograph from the day, Mr. Johnson, a Black man, stands at the medal ceremony surrounded by Germans with outstretched arms, the familiar Nazi salute.

Delos Thurber, Cornelius Johnson and Dave Albritton raising their arms in what was known as a Bellamy salute, a tribute to the U.S. flag, after the high jump event in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.Credit…Paul Thompson/FPG/Archive Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In Mr. Johnson’s hand was a gift from the host country: a potted, one-year-old oak sapling.

Mr. Johnson returned to Los Angeles and planted the tree in his backyard, where it grew to a height of almost 50 feet and for decades was a sturdy and noble neighbor to the residents of the area that would later become part of Koreatown, offering shade and, if you were in the know, history.

Now the tree and the history it represents are on the verge of being lost. A plan to sell the property and turn the land into luxury townhomes is in escrow. Given the booming real estate market and a region gripped by housing crisis, some might consider it a necessary sacrifice, but for preservationists and historians the destruction of the tree would represent an incalculable loss.

The fate of the tree has attracted more attention than it might have in an earlier era because of the focus today, in Los Angeles and elsewhere, to preserve important monuments with connections to Black history in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the civil rights protests that followed.

The preservationists fighting to save it see it as a living link to historical events, from the rise of Nazi Germany to the achievements of the Black American athletes at the Berlin Games that many historians now regard as precursors to the civil rights movement.

“It was an absolute horror for me to imagine that it’s going to be destroyed,” said Christian Kosmas Mayer, a German artist based in Vienna, who is working to save the tree.

A consortium of groups, including the LA84 Foundation, a nonprofit established to promote youth sports when Los Angeles hosted the Summer Olympics in 1984, and the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, which focuses on addressing inequities in green spaces in communities of color, are working to raise funds to purchase the property and preserve the house and tree.

Christian Kosmas Mayer in Vienna, Austria. He is trying to save a tree in Los Angeles planted by the Olympic champion Cornelius Johnson.Credit…David Payr for The New York Times
Some of Mr. Mayer’s artwork has focused on Mr. Johnson’s life.Credit…David Payr for The New York Times

The tree was recently granted a reprieve when the Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources accepted an application for monument status, an action that starts a bureaucratic process that officials hope will buy time to negotiate with the property owner to save the tree.

In their application with the city, the writers Susan D. Anderson, a curator at the California African American Museum, and Mr. Mayer described the tree as a “living monument” to Mr. Johnson’s Olympic victory and “a remembrance of a time when Black athletes from the U.S. symbolized victory over the racist Aryan supremacist credo of the Nazi government that sponsored the 1936 games.”

Peter Paik, a real estate agent who has been trying for more than a year to complete the sale of the property, said in response to queries about the tree, “My duty is to sell the house.”

On a cool and sunny day recently, the tree stood, as it has for decades as a fixture in the neighborhood, surrounded by crab grass and rose and hibiscus bushes. But at 87 years old, barely into middle age, the tree is sickly. Its canopy is diminished from neglect, and many roots have been paved over with concrete and are struggling for nourishment.

As attention has turned to the fight over the tree, it has also served as a reminder of Mr. Johnson, and the accomplishments of the 18 Black American athletes who participated in the Berlin Games. They collected 14 medals, and their achievements resonated in America as a powerful point of pride for the African American community at a time of Jim Crow segregation and lynchings. In Berlin, the athletes enjoyed a measure of celebrity and adulation they had never experienced back home.

German newspapers were ordered to print only positive stories about the African American athletes from the United States, according to the documentary film “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice,” and antisemitic signs around Berlin came down. It was all part of an elaborate propaganda campaign by the Nazi government to use the Olympics to achieve legitimacy on the global stage for the new Germany, even as they had already begun barring Jews from public life.

Mr. Johnson’s story also pierces a myth that sprouted from the Games and has persisted through the years: that Hitler singled out Jesse Owens, the Black American sprinter who won four gold medals, by not congratulating him when he won.

In fact, it was after Mr. Johnson won the high jump that Hitler left the stadium in Berlin, before Mr. Johnson received his medal, even though earlier in the day he had greeted German and Finnish winners. Historians have debated Hitler’s motivations in leaving the stadium early — at the time some close to him said he had a prior appointment — officials with the International Olympic Committee told Hitler that he must either greet all winners or none. For the rest of the games, he chose none.

Back home, Black athletes were also shunned, when President Franklin Roosevelt welcomed only the white athletes to the White House. After the Games, Mr. Johnson worked as a mail carrier and then as a merchant mariner. He died, at age 32 in 1946, after falling ill aboard a ship.

But his tree lived on, cared for by his relatives and, later, a family from Mexico that bought the house in the 1990s. It is one of the few remaining “Olympic Oaks,” as they have come to be called. In Berlin, 129 oak saplings were given out — one for each gold medal — and today there are about two dozen left, according to Mr. Mayer’s and Ms. Anderson’s research, in the United States, Germany, Argentina, Finland, Britain, New Zealand and Switzerland. Some were destroyed after World War II began and the full horrors Naziism became clear, some were tossed into the sea when athletes sailed home, and others were planted and later died.

For Mr. Mayer, Mr. Johnson’s tree has provided artistic inspiration.

Several years ago he came to Los Angeles for a residency at the MAK Center, the California outpost of a Vienna museum, with the idea of creating art from the tree. The result was a multimedia installation that was exhibited in Vienna, Berlin and Poznan, Poland. It incorporated seedlings cloned from acorns collected from the tree, and narration of stories connected to the tree’s history, including interviews with the Mexican family.

“There’s all this big history — Olympic Games, Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler and so on,” Mr. Mayer said. “But then there’s also this very personal story of a family who lives with the tree.” ”

As a German artist, Mr. Mayer said he felt obligated to reckon with his country’s history, adding that he learned about the oak trees while reading a history of the Berlin Games.

Several limbs have been removed from the oak tree given to Jesse Owens, which is planted at James Ford Rhodes High School in Cleveland. The tree is one of about two dozen remaining from the 1936 Olympics.Credit…Daniel Lozada for The New York Times
An oak sapling propagated from the tree given to Mr. Owens in 1936. Mr. Owens’s tree is in poor health, but propagated saplings have been planted at Cleveland’s Rockefeller Park.Credit…Daniel Lozada for The New York Times

For the Nazis, he said, the oak symbolized superiority and strength.

That the tree still lives amid the diversity of Los Angeles is, for Mr. Mayer, “completely poetic.”

The Johnson family has deep roots in Los Angeles — Cornelius’s parents moved here in the late 1890s. Mr. Johnson’s nephew, James Braxton, still lives in the city, and on a recent afternoon he sat in his garage going through boxes of his uncle’s memorabilia: letters from fans, tickets for passenger ships to Europe, delicate old clippings from European newspapers.

Now 86, Mr. Braxton was 10 when Mr. Johnson died and considered his uncle a second father. He recalled Mr. Johnson buying him his first suit, a tweed outfit that he wore long after he had outgrown it. Mr. Braxton was not part of the group trying to save the tree but said he was pleased to hear that it could be saved.

“Now I wish I hadn’t sold the property,” he said.

When Mr. Mayer and others first learned that development plans might jeopardize the tree, they considered moving it to the grounds of the California African American Museum in Los Angeles.

Jim Braxton, the nephew of Cornelius Johnson.Credit…Morgan Lieberman for The New York Times
Mr. Braxton holding a photo of his uncle and his oak tree.Credit…Morgan Lieberman for The New York Times

But Tim Thibault, a tree expert at the Huntington Gardens, said the tree was in no shape to be transported. On a recent afternoon, he inspected the tree for the first time in about a year and said, “I would be shocked if this tree could survive transplant.”

He said much of the root system, which extends into the neighboring yard, was under concrete and would be lost if the tree were uprooted. “The roots of this tree, although we can’t see them, are screaming,” he said, adding, “it’s going to take a lot for it to recover in its existing location.”

Today, few in the neighborhood even know of the tree’s significance. But for a few longtime residents, there are cherished memories of living near a notable family and a famous tree.

When Alejandro Urias was a boy, playing on the streets of Koreatown in the 1970s, he knew he had a special neighbor. He recalled an older man, a relative of Mr. Johnson’s, telling the kids about the tree while handing out butterscotch candies.

Over the years, Mr. Urias would bring friends up to his balcony to get a good look at the tall oak a couple houses over that towered over the neighborhood.

“It was flourishing,” Mr. Urias, 52, said the other day, standing on his street. “It was full of leaves. It was a sight to see. It was really beautiful. I remember you could see it everywhere.”

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