|His stunning victories and achievement of four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin has made him the best remembered of all Olympic athletes. Fast and fierce, Jesse Owens sprinted his way into the history books.
James Cleveland Owens was born September 12, 1913 in Oakville, Alabama, the seventh child of Mr. and Mrs. Henry and Emma Owens. When James (J.C.) was nine years old, his parents decided to move the whole family to Cleveland, Ohio. They did not have much money, and J.C.'s father was hoping to find a better job there.
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. due to his southern drawl. He would be called Jesse from that point forward.
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 that time that Jesse discovered he enjoyed running, which would prove to be the turning point in his life.
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. Jesse agreed.
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. However 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 experiences 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 15 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 six 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 15 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 entered the 1936 Olympics, which to many are known as the "Hitler Olympics." These games were 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 Jesse 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 10-yard head start before beating them.
Jesse also took numerous public-speaking engagements, and emerged 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, Arizona from complications due to lung cancer. In recognition to his "triumphs for humanity," Owen was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Metal in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush.
Through all the trials, tribulations and successes, Jesse Owens was a devoted and loving family man. In 1935, he married his longtime high school sweetheart, Ruth Solomon. 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.
© Estate of Jesse Owens c/o CMG Worldwide