Black History Month Feature: Jesse Owens, Olympic Superstar

Jesse Owens at start of record-breaking 200 meter race during the Olympic games 1936 in Berlin. (Photo by Ohio State University)

Jesse Owens at start of record-breaking 200 meter race during the Olympic games 1936 in Berlin (Photo by Ohio State University).

Jesse Owens, the son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, achieved what no Olympian before him had accomplished. His stunning achievement of four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin made him arguably the best remembered athlete in Olympic history.

The seventh child of Henry and Emma Alexander Owens was named James Cleveland when he was born in Alabama on September 12, 1913. “J.C.” was nine when the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. His new schoolteacher thought he said “Jesse” and the name stuck. He would be known as Jesse Owens for the rest of his life.

In high school, he won all the major track events, including the Ohio state championship, three consecutive years. He set new high school world records in the 100 yard dash in 9.4 seconds, and the 220 yard dash in 20.7 seconds. A week earlier he set a new world record in the broad jump at 24 feet, 11 3/4 inches. Recruited by dozens of colleges, Owens chose the Ohio State University, even though OSU could not offer a track scholarship. He worked many jobs to support himself and his young wife, Ruth, as a night elevator operator, a waiter, he pumped gas, worked in the library stacks, and as a page in the Ohio Statehouse, all between practices and setting records on the field in intercollegiate competition.

At the Big Ten Championships, Ann Arbor, May 25, 1935, he set three world records and tied a fourth, all in a span of 45 minutes. His success there gave him the confidence that he was ready to excel at the highest level. Jesse entered the 1936 Olympics, held in Nazi Germany amidst the belief by Hitler that the Games would support Hitler’s belief that the German “Aryan” people were the dominant race. Jesse had different plans, as he became the first American track & field athlete to win four gold medals in a single Olympiad.

Although others have gone on to win more gold medals than Jesse, he remains the best remembered Olympic athlete because he achieved what no Olympian before or since has accomplished. During a time of deep-rooted segregation, he not only discredited Hitler’s master race theory, but also affirmed that individual excellence, rather than race or national origin, distinguishes one man from another.

Throughout his life, Owens worked with youths, sharing of himself; equally the champion on the playground of the poorest neighborhoods as he was on the oval of the Olympic games. In 1976, President Gerald Ford presented him with the Medal of Freedom. In February,1979, President Carter presented him with the Living Legend Award. Owens died from lung cancer March 31, 1980 in Tucson, Arizona. Owens was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush.