Jesse Owens

In the beginning ... If you look at most lists of famous people from Ohio, Jesse Owens will likely be somewhere near the top.  Truth be told, James Cleveland (J.C.) Owens was born in Oakville, Alabama on September 12, 1913, to Henry and Emma Owens.  He was the son of sharecroppers and the grandson of slaves.  J.C. was child number seven among his ten brothers and sisters.  At the tender age of seven, he helped put food on the family table by picking up to 100 pounds of cotton a day.  But his life, and American history, changed when he turned nine.  That was when he moved to Ohio.

For young J.C., school had always been a one-room schoolhouse.  When he moved to Cleveland, the pace of life was no longer slow as he knew in the South.  Classes were bigger, as were the schools, and teachers were stricter.  When one of his teachers asked his name, he replied, “J.C.” in his Southern accent.  The teacher thought he said, “Jesse”.  That name stuck with him the rest of his life, when he wasn’t referred to as “the Buckeye Bullet”.

Budding Talent ... At a young age, Jesse realized that he ran faster than his peers.  And, the track world recognized it soon afterwards.  In 1928, Jesse could not practice after school for track when he was in Middle School; he had to work at a shoe repair shop to help support the family.  So, his track coach, Charles Riley, allowed him to practice before school.  The efforts paid off as he dashed records in both the high jump and the long jump.

Success continued at East Technical High School as Jesse gained national recognition as a sprinter.  In the 1933 National High School Championship in Chicago, he equaled both the world record for the 100 yard dash in 9.4 seconds and the long jump at 24 feet 9 ½ inches.

Ohio State Buckeyes ... As you might imagine, many colleges sought after Owens.  Jesse selected the Ohio State University.  (Was there ever really a choice?)  During his time as a Buckeye, Jesse was the best track and field athlete in the NCAA.  He won eight individual championships in two years.  In 1935 alone, Jesse enter - and won - all 42 various competitions he entered.

At the 1935 Big Ten track meet, Jesse had what has been called the greatest track and field event in history.  In a mere 45 minutes, he tied the world record in the 100 yard dash and set three new world records in the long jump, the 220 yard dash and the 200 yard hurdles.  It would have been even more amazing if he could have done this at home in the track and field stadium that is now named after him.  But, for a Buckeye to do this in Michigan, it had to be extremely satisfying.

You would think that this kind of athletic success would have accompanied treatment worthy of a king.  The world is not a perfect place.  Racism is still a problem.  But, the treatment of Jesse Owens is shameful and shocking.  Segregation was deep-rooted and thriving during Jesse Owens’ lifetime.  At that time, Ohio State did not offer scholarships for track and field athletes – not matter how stellar they were.  Owens had to find work off campus to support himself.  And, he couldn’t not even live at Ohio State University because there was no housing for black students.  When he traveled with the Buckeyes, he was not permitted to stay in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurant as the rest of the team.

Berlin Olympics 1936 ... Leading up to the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Germany, Jesse continued to dominate.  He won four events at the NCAA Championship, two more at the Amateur Athletic Union and an additional three at the U.S. Olympic trials.  He was ready to face Adolf Hitler and the Nazis and write his own chapter in the history books on Aryan dominance. 

And, that he did.

Hitler expected the Olympics to be a showcase for Germany and Aryan supremacy.  He ridiculed the United States for even including black athletes.  However, of the eleven Olympic gold medals won by the United States in Berlin, six were earned by black athletes.  And when all was said and done, Jesse Owens owned four of those gold medals (the 100 meter sprint, the 200 meter sprint, the 2 x 100 meter relay and the long jump).  He proved himself to be one of the best Olympians of all time, in probably the most difficult of all circumstances. 

There are many stories, rumors and debated facts about Owens’ experience in Berlin.  Some say that Hitler snubbed him and refused to shake his hand.  Others say that Jesse actually carried a photo of a handshake with the Führer. However, Owens stated that his best memories of the Olympics was not the races nor the medals.  He enjoyed the German welcome.  Germans cheered for him and wanted their photos taken with him.  And one of his main rivals in the long jump, the German Luz Long, befriended Jesse and gave him advice on where to jump when he saw Owens struggling.  Long was the first to congratulate Jesse when he won the gold.
It should surprise nobody that Owens was awarded the Associated Press Male Athlete of the year in 1936.  But, even though he raced the U.S.A. to amazing victory in the Berlin Olympics, Owens returned home to the same racism and segregation as before.  At the very least, champions of his stature should expect a visit with the president of the United States.  However, there was no meeting with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Jesse Owens was not surprised at all.  He stated, “When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus.  I had to go to the back door.  I couldn’t live where I wanted.  I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the president either.”

Fortunately, in 1976, Owens received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford.  It was forty years late, but still so deserved.

Post Olympics... Upon returning to the United States, Jesse Owens received a ticker-tape parade in New York City.  That probably felt good until he arrived at a reception in his honor at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.  He wasn’t allowed to take the regular elevator to the ceremony since it was only for white people.  He had to go around the back to a service elevator for black people and deliveries.

Modern-day Olympic champions, no matter their heritage, garner endorsements that make them millionaires after their Olympic careers.  That was not the case in 1936.  Jesse Owens was expelled from amateur athletics after Berlin because he tried to cash in on his celebrity.  Unfortunately, he really had no choice.  He had a family to care for including his (eventually) three daughter and his wife, Minnie Ruth Solomon, whom he met way back at Fairmont Junior High School when he was fifteen and she was thirteen.  They were married in 1935.

Life was difficult after the Olympics for several years.  Jesse used his physical abilities in many different ways to earn a living.  Sometimes, he raced against other famous athletes from other sports, horses, dogs, motorcycles and even cars.  He played for a while with the Harlem Globetrotters.  He was even the front man in a travelling band.  Other jobs included janitor and gas station attendant.  “People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can't eat four gold medals.”

One low point was a dry-cleaning business in Cleveland with two corrupt partners.  It went bankrupt and Owens faced tax evasion. 

Fortunately, things finally turned around in his life.  Jesse Owens eventually found his way in the world of public relations and public speaking.   Based in Chicago, he traveled the country speaking at conferences, conventions and business gatherings.  He was also appointed as a goodwill ambassador for the United States.

Education is a very good thing and today we know much about the dangers of smoking that Jesse Owens didn’t know when he was a young man.  He smoked a package of cigarettes a day for thirty-five years.  That eventually took its toll on the “Buckeye Bullet”.  He acquired an aggressive form of lung cancer and was hospitalized in December, 1979.  Jesse Owens passed away on March 31, 1980, in Tucson, Arizona.  He had been married to his wife Ruth for forty-eight years.

  Copyright 2018 by Phillip Martin All rights reserved.