James Cleveland Owens was born in 1913 in a small town in Alabama
to Henry and Emma Owens. When J.C. was eight, his parents decided
to move the family to Cleveland, Ohio. They did not have much money,
and J.C.'s father was hoping to find a better job. When they arrived
in Cleveland, J.C. was enrolled in a public school. On his first
day of class when the teacher asked his name, she heard Jesse, instead
of J.C. He would be called Jesse from that point on.
Cleveland was not as prosperous as Henry and Emma had hoped and
the family remained very poor. Jesse took on different jobs in his
spare time. He delivered groceries, loaded freight cars and worked
in a shoe repair shop. It was during this time that Jesse discovered
he enjoyed running, which would prove to be the turning point in
One day in gym class, the students were timed in the 60-yard dash.
When Coach Charlie Riley saw the raw, yet natural talent that young
Jesse had, he immediately invited him to run for the track team.
Although Jesse was unable to participate in after-school practices
because of work, Coach Riley offered to train him in the mornings.
At Cleveland East Technical High School Jesse became a track star.
As a senior, he tied the world record in the 100-yard dash with
a time of 9.4 seconds, only to tie it again while running in the
Interscholastic Championships in Chicago. While in Chicago, he also
leaped a distance of 24 feet 9 5/8 inches in the broad-jump.
Many colleges and universities tried to recruit Jesse; he chose
to attend Ohio State University. Here Jesse met some of his fiercest
competition, and not just on the track. The United States was still
struggling to desegregate in 1933, which led to many difficult
for Jesse. He was required to live off campus with other African-American
athletes. When he traveled with the team, Jesse could either order
carryout or eat at "blacks-only" restaurants. Likewise, he slept
in "blacks-only" hotels. On occasion, a "white" hotel
would allow the black athletes to stay, but they had to use the
back door, and the stairs instead of the elevator. Because Jesse
was not awarded a scholarship from the university, he continued
to work part-time jobs to pay for school.
At the Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor on May 25, 1935, Jesse set three
world records and tied a fourth, all in a span of about 45 minutes.
Jesse had an ailing back the entire week leading up to the meet
in Ann Arbor. He had fallen down a flight of stairs, and it was
questionable whether he would physically be able to participate
in the meet. He received treatment right up to race time. Confident
that the treatment helped, Jesse persuaded the coach to allow him
to run the 100-yard dash. Remarkably, each race timer had clocked
him at an official 9.4 seconds, once again tying the world record.
This convinced Owens' coach to allow him to participate in his
other events. A mere fifteen minutes later, Jesse took his first
attempt it the broad jump. Prior to jumping, Jesse put a handkerchief
at 26 feet 2½ inches, the distance of the world record. After such
a bold gesture, he soared to a distance of 26 feet 8¼ inches,
shattering the old world record by nearly 6 inches.
Disregarding the pain, Jesse proceeded to set a new world record
in the 220-yard dash in 20.3 seconds, besting the old record by
three-tenths of a second. Within the next fifteen minutes, Jesse
was ready to compete in another event, this one being the 220-yard
low hurdles. In his final event, Owens' official time was 22.6 seconds.
This time would set yet another world record, beating the old record
by four-tenths of a second. Jesse Owens had completed a task that
had never been accomplished in the history of track and field. He
had set three new world records and equaled a fourth.
By the end of his sophomore year at Ohio State, Jesse realized
that he could be successful on a more competitive level. Jesse
the 1936 Olympics, which to many are known as the "Hitler Olympics."
These games were to be held in Nazi Germany, and Hitler was going
to prove to the world that the German "Aryan" people were the dominant
race. Jesse had different plans, however, and by the end of the
games even German fans cheered for him.
Jesse was triumphant in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash and
the broad jump. He was also a key member of the 400-meter relay
team that won the Gold Medal. In all but one of these events Jesse
set Olympic records. Jesse was the first American in the history
of Olympic Track and Field to win four gold medals in a single Olympics.
Despite his success, the financial instability of the Owens family
continued. Shamefully, at that time in America he was not offered
any endorsement deals because he was black. In an effort to provide
for his family, Jesse left school before his senior year to run
professionally. For a while he was a runner-for-hire, racing against
anything from people, to horses, to motorcycles. The Negro Baseball
league often hired him to race against thoroughbred horses in an
exhibition before every game. Jesse even raced against the some
of the Major Leagues fastest ballplayers, always giving them a
head start before beating them.
Jesse also took numerous public-speaking engagements, and was an
articulate and enjoyable lecturer. In fact, Jesse was so well-liked
and successful that he started his own public relations firm. He
traveled around the country spoke on behalf of companies like Ford
and the United States Olympic Committee. He stressed the importance
of religion, hard
work and loyalty. He also sponsored and participated in many youth
sports programs in underprivileged neighborhoods.
In 1976, Jesse was awarded the highest honor a civilian of the United
States can receive. President Gerald R. Ford awarded him with the
Medal of Freedom. Jesse overcame segregation, racism and bigotry
to prove to the world that African-Americans belonged in the world
of athletics. Several years later, on March 31, 1980, Jesse Owens,66,
died in Tucson from complications due to cancer.
Through all the trials, tribulations and successes, Jesse Owens
was a devoted and loving family man. He married his longtime high
school sweetheart, Ruth Solomon, in 1935. Together they had three
daughters, Gloria, Beverly and Marlene. To this day, his widow Ruth
and daughter Marlene operate the Jesse Owens Foundation, striving
to provide financial assistance and support to deserving young individuals
that otherwise would not have the opportunity to pursue their goals.
Jesse would certainly be proud of their efforts.