Jesse Owens, one of the more remarkable Americans to grace the world stage was born in Alabama in 1913 to Henry and Emma Owens, sharecroppers who were the children of slaves. Their existence was marginal, often without enough food, and Owens (the seventh of 11 children) was sickly. The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, when Owens was seven, but life was not much improved. The young boy worked in his spare time to contribute to the family income, while attending public school.
By age 12, Owens showed extraordinary promise as a sprinter. At Cleveland East Technical High School, he distinguished himself in competition, while still working after-school jobs. He tied the world record in the 100-yard dash, and set new national records in the 200-yard dash and broad-jump. He was aggressively courted by a number of colleges and universities, but no scholarships were available.
Owens felt unable to leave home and forfeit his financial contribution to the household. When Ohio State University arranged work for his father, Owens accepted an offer to attend (but still worked three jobs in his free time). There he achieved national recognition while experiencing the insult of racism. He and the other African Americans were forced to live off-campus, and when traveling, they were confined to “blacks-only” restaurants and hotels.
At the Big Ten track and field meet in Ann Arbor in 1935, Owens’ coach was unsure that he could compete. Owens had injured his back one week prior, and had not been able to train. He prevailed upon the coach to let him run, and achieved the unprecedented feat of setting three world records, and tying a fourth, in less than one hour. He smashed the broad-jump record by almost six inches, with a leap of 26 feet, 8-1/4 inches. He set new world records with 20.3 seconds in the 220-yard dash, and in the 220-yard low hurdles with 22.6 seconds. And he once again tied the 100-yard dash record of 9.4 seconds.
The 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin, Nazi Germany. Adolph Hitler planned to use the competition to prove Aryan (white) racial supremacy. Owens was scheduled to compete in three events, and became a substitute for a relay runner in a fourth. After initially faltering with two fouls in the broad-jump, he received encouragement and advice from Hitler’s favorite Lutz Long. Owens proceeded to win the Gold Medal. He also won Gold Medals in the other three events, the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, and 400-meter relay team. Owens was the first American to win four Gold Medals in the history of Olympic Track and Field competition, and by the end of the event the mostly German audience was cheering and chanting his name. Hitler left the stadium before Owens could complete his triumph.
While a ticker-tape parade greeted Owens in New York City on his return, there were no professional endorsement opportunities available (possibly due to racial discrimination). As he said in an interview: “I came back to my native country and I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus.” A misunderstanding with a track and field association compromised his ability to compete. Owens did what he could to earn a living by running and racing horses and motorcycles in demonstrations and shows. An unsuccessful dry-cleaning business was followed by a term as national director of physical education for African Americans with the Office of Civilian Defense from 1940 to 1942. In 1942, Owens joined the Ford Motor Company in Detroit as personnel director for minority employment.
Beginning with his experience as a playground director, he moved to Chicago in 1950 and joined the Board of Directors of the South Side Boys Club. In 1956, he organized the Junior Olympic Games for youngsters aged 12 to 17 in Chicago. He served as a sports specialist for the Illinois Youth Commission for six years. In partnership with a public relations client, Owens created the ARCO/Jesse Owens Games in 1964 for youths between the ages of 10 and 15, benefiting millions.
In another sign of change, 40 years after Owens’ Olympic triumph, President Gerald Ford awarded him the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom. Then in 1979, President Jimmy Carter honored him with a Living Legend Award.
As Owens himself once said: “Life is the real Olympics.”
Sources: Jesse Owens Foundation; Black History Now; New York Times