Owens, Jesse 1913–1980
Jesse Owens 1913–1980
Olympic athlete, businessman
More than a decade after his death, Jesse Owens remains enshrined in memory as one of the greatest athletes—and perhaps the greatest track star—ever to compete in the Olympics Games. Owens’s phenomenal four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany, held meaning far beyond mere sports trophies. The 22-year-old sprinter made a mockery of Adolf Hitler’s Nazidoctrine of Aryan supremacy, scoring a political victory for the United States and a moral victory for black people worldwide.
In Ebony magazine, Lorone Bennett, Jr., wrote that the tableau of the 1936 Olympics “would become a legend and would be passed on from generation to generation, growing in the telling, the story of an incredible moment of truth when the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves temporarily derailed the Nazi juggernaut and gave the lie to Hitler’s theories on Aryan (read White) supremacy.… [Owens’s] story, which will be told as long as men and women celebrate grace and courage, was more than a sports story. It was politics, history even, played out on an international stage with big stakes riding on every contest.”
According to Pete Axthelm in Newsweek, Jesse Owens “made a mockery of the Fuhrer’s [Hitler’s] word—and the Aryan ‘master race’ philosophy. His medals could not divert the dark propaganda wave that was sweeping Germany at the time.… But he did lift American spirits to giddy heights, and he seemed to embody the Olympic dream that sportsmen can reach across political and military lines in a noble quest for friendship and glory.”
Owens’s triumphs are even more remarkable when viewed from the perspective of the time. He was born into a large, poverty-stricken family in the deep South, endured discrimination and double standards in the North, and worked his way through junior high school, high school, and college at Ohio State University without the benefit of a scholarship. As Bennett noted, Owens “had been running hard against the Hitlers of the world ever since he was sent to the cotton field to pick cotton at the age of seven.” Nor did Owens’s Olympic victories ensure him an easy life afterwards. He overcame numerous obstacles at home in the United States to become a respected businessman, public speaker, and mentor to young athletes.
Born James Cleveland Owens, September 12, 1913, in Danville, AL; died of lung cancer, March 31, 1980, in Phoenix, AZ; son of Henry (a sharecropper) and Emma (Alexander) Owens; married Ruth Solomon, 1931; children: Gloria, Beverly, Marlene. Education: Ohio State University, B.A., 1937.
Amateur athlete, 1927-36; held world records in 100-yard dash, broad jump (now called long jump), 220-yard dash, and 220-yard low hurdles. Won olympic gold medals, 1936, in 100-meter dash 200-meter dash, borad jump, and 400-meter realy.
worked as playground janitor and raced against horses, cars, trucks, and motorcycles, 1936-37. Partner in dry cleaning business in Cleveland, OH, 1937-39; worked with Office of Civilian Defense, Philadelphia, PA, 1940-42; director for minority employment for Ford Motor Company, Detroit, Ml, 1942-1946; with Leo Rose Sporting Goods Co., 1946-52; member of board of directors of South Side Boys Club, Chicago, IL, 1950-52; served as secretary of the Illinois Athletic Commission, 1952-55; served as ambassador for sports for U.S. State Department, 1955; president and owner of Jesse Owens & Associates public relations firm, Chicago, 1955-80.
Awards: Recipient of numerous awards, including three conferred by the U.S. Government: Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1976; Living Legend Award, 1979; and the Congressional Gold Medal, 1990.
James Cleveland Owens was born in rural Alabama in 1913. The seventh of eleven children born to Henry and Emma Owens, he was sickly and thin, often too frail to help his older brothers and father in the cotton fields. Owens's father was a sharecropper. The family lived in a small, unheated house, and there were times when there was not enough food to feed them all. Owens's mother dreamed of a better life in the North, where blacks were finding jobs and a degree of prosperity. Finally, when Owens was seven, his father sold the family tools and the mules, and they moved to Cleveland, Ohio.
The family’s circumstances did not improve much in Cleveland, but the move was very important for their gifted young son. Entering a city grade school, Owens gave his name as “J. C.,” and the teacher wrote down “Jesse.” The name stuck for the rest of his life. Owens went to school during the day and performed odd jobs in the afternoons and evenings. He had little spare time, but he managed to find moments to race with his friends on the schoolyard and through the alleys of his neighborhood. By twelve he had developed into a promising sprinter. “There was, even then, something unique about Jesse Owens,” wrote Bennett. “He didn’t run, he floated, seeming, as one of his coaches said later, ‘to caress the ground.’ There was beauty, poetry even, in the fluid, effortless, ‘velvety smooth’ glide which made him a formidable foe.”
Charles Riley, the track coach at Fairview Junior High, was astounded when Owens ran the 100-yard dash in ten seconds flat. Riley took special interest in Owens, working with the youngster in the mornings before school. Coach and student became fast friends, and their relationship continued when Owens went on to East Technical High School in Cleveland. Throughout his junior high and high school years, Owens held part-time jobs to help his parents pay the bills. His talent blossomed in tough circumstances that might have discouraged many young men.
As a member of the East Technical track team, Owens set national records by running the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds and the 200-yard dash in 20.7 seconds. He also set a new broad jump (now called long jump) record with a leap of 24 feet, nine and five-eighths inches. A number of universities recruited him actively, but Owens felt that college was just a dream. He could not leave his struggling family and his own young wife—he married in 1931—when his paycheck was in such demand.
Finally, Charles Riley and the track coach at Ohio State University were able to entice Owens. The authorities at Ohio State used their influence to find steady work for Owens’s father with the state of Ohio. Only then did Owens agree to enter Ohio State, where he paid his tuition by working three jobs in addition to his studies and track activities. “Unbelievable as it may seem now,” Bennett noted, “he did not receive a scholarship and was forced to wait on tables and run elevators to pay his tuition.”
Owens also became acquainted with Northern bigotry while a student at Ohio State. He lived in a house with the other black members of the track team and took most of his meals there. Black team members could not dine in restaurants or use the rest room facilities when the team stopped on the road while travelling to or from meets. On one occasion, an angry cook from a rural diner refused to serve the blacks even in their car. Such incidents were permanently burned into Owens’s memory and gave him extra motivation to excel.
On May 25, 1935, Owens travelled to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to take part in the annual Big Ten Track and Field Championships. At the time he was recovering from a painful back injury, and he and his coach talked about missing the meet. He could not practice for a week before the event, but when the hour approached for the 100-yard dash, he decided to try to participate. New York Times columnist Arthur Daley called Owens’s performance at Ann Arbor “the greatest day in track history.” Within a space of 45 minutes the young athlete tied the world record for the 100-yard dash, broke the world record with a long jump of more than 26 feet, broke the world record in the 220-yard dash, and broke yet another world record in the 220-yard low hurdles. With the Olympic Games only a year away, Americans began to pin their hopes for track and field victories on the star from Ohio State.
The 1936 Olympic Games were held in brand new facilities in Nazi Germany’s capital, Berlin. Adolf Hitler made little effort to hide his views that the event would be a showcase for Aryan athletes such as track star Lutz Long. In his first event against Owens, Long set an Olympic record with his long jump. Owens, racked with nerves, missed on his first two jumps, but then he bested not only Long’s new record but his own former records as well. His gold medal-winning long jump of 26 feet, five and a quarter inches stood as the world record for the next twenty-five years. As Hitler left the stadium in a huff Lutz Long embraced Owens while the mostly German crowd chanted the new champion’s name as if he were the hometown hero.
Owens won a total of four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics. He took gold in the 100-meter sprint, the 200-meter sprint, the jump, and the 400-meter relay. Ironically, he ran in the relay as a substitute for a Jewish runner. Axthelm wrote of Owens’s feat: “He didn’t merely run and jump to four gold-medal victories in the Berlin Games of 1936. He took flight, soaring far above a world of athletic competition, enlarging the possibilities of sport itself. [Owens remains] the most famous and symbolic hero of the modern Olympic games.”
Symbol and reality began to clash when Owens returned to America. He was greeted by throngs at a ticker tape parade in New York, but within months he was unable to find a job in order to pay for the rest of his college work. Years later, Owens told Ebony : “I came back to my native country and 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 up to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.”
Owens was more or less forced to turn professional. He ran a series of races against horses, cars, and motorcycles, earning enough to pay for his last year at Ohio State. After graduation he became a partner in a Cleveland dry-cleaning business that proved lucrative at first but eventually went bankrupt. By 1940 Owens was deeply in debt and had three daughters to support. He worked briefly as the national director of physical education for Negroes, then, in 1942, he became personnel director for minority employment at Ford Motor Company.
Eventually Owens realized that he wanted to work more with children. He moved from Detroit to Chicago in 1950 and became a member of the board of directors of the South Side Boys Club. Also during this time he began to trade upon his celebrity, touring with the Harlem Globetrotters and making speeches on goodwill tours in America and abroad. In 1956 he organized the Junior Olympic Games for youngsters in Chicago between the ages of 12 and 17.
Later in his life Owens opened his own public relations firm, becoming a celebrated speaker at business and professional conventions. He came under fire in 1968 for opposing a black American boycott of the Olympics, and for a time was derided as an “Uncle Tom” and a toady to white people. The charges stung Owens. He attempted to defend himself in a 1970 biography, Blackthink, but two years later he became more militant and published another book, I Have Changed.
It is estimated that Owens earned around $100,000 per year in the 1970s, mostly from personal appearances and speeches. He moved his business from Chicago to Phoenix, but as the 1970s progressed his health deteriorated. A longtime cigarette smoker, he developed inoperable lung cancer. He died on March 31, 1980, after a long stay in a Phoenix hospital, and he was buried in Chicago several days later.
Forty years after he won his gold medals, Owens was finally invited to the White House to accept a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Gerald Ford. Jimmy Carter honored Owens two years later in 1979 with a Living Legend Award. The highest honor Owens ever received, however, came a full ten years after his death. Congressman Louis Stokes from Cleveland lobbied tirelessly to earn Owens a Congressional Gold Medal. The award was finally given to Owens’s widow, Ruth, by President Bush in 1990. During the ceremony, Bush lauded Owens as “an Olympic hero and an American hero every day of his life.”
The official recognition by three American presidents was a slight honor indeed compared to the warmth felt for Owens by blacks all over the world. His victory served as the most eloquent testimony against any sort of discrimination based on the idea of racial inferiority. As for Owens himself, he told the New York Times that his gold medals changed his life. “They have kept me alive over the years,” he said. “Time has stood still for me. That golden moment dies hard.” He added: “Any black who strives to achieve in this country should think in terms of not only himself but also how he can reach down and grab another black child and pull him to the top of the mountain where he is. This is what a gold medal does to you.”
(With Paul G. Neimark) Blackthink: My Life as a Black Man and White Man, Morrow, 1970.
(With Neimark) I Have Changed, Morrow, 1972.
Kaufman, Mervyn, Jesse Owens, Crowell, 1973.
Ebony, September 1988.
Jet, August 1, 1989; April 16, 1990.
Newsweek, April 14, 1980.
New York Times, July 6, 1954; April 1, 1980; April 5, 1980.
American track and field athlete
Few athletes have transcended their sports to become a symbol of an era as did Jesse Owens. Enduring a childhood marked by grinding poverty in Alabama, Owens became a star athlete in high school after his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. His achievements earned Owens several lucrative offers to attend college as a track-and-field athlete, and he enrolled at Ohio State University in 1933. On May 25, 1935, Owens made national headlines for setting five world records and tying another record at the Big Ten Intercollegiate Championships in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Although many historians consider Owens's performance that day the greatest achievement by any track-and-field athlete in a single day, his participation in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games made him into a legend. After winning one team and three individual Olympic Gold Medals in an atmosphere charged with German Chancellor Adolf Hitler's declarations of Aryan racial superiority, Owens became an American hero. Although his professional career endured several struggles after his retirement as an amateur athlete, the public's admiration of Owens never dimmed. In the last decades of his life, the former star athlete became a sought-after public speaker. Using his own life's experience as a model, Owens preached the values of hard work, self-esteem, and patriotism. Prior to his death in 1980, Owens was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 1983 was inducted posthumously into the US Olympic Committee Hall of Fame.
Part of the Great Migration
Jesse Owens was born in the rural hamlet of Danville in northern Alabama on September 12, 1913. He was the youngest of the ten children of Henry and Mary Emma (Fitzgerald) Owens who had survived childhood. Like most of his African-American neighbors, Henry Owens struggled to provide for his family as a sharecropper and barely managed to keep his children fed and clothed. After their daughter, Lillie, moved to Cleveland during World War I, Mary Owens encouraged her husband to move the family North to take advantage of the higher wages, steadier work, and personal freedom that their daughter had described to them. Henry Owens took two of their older sons to Cleveland after the war and found conditions promising enough to bring the rest of the family to the city around 1922.
In their decision to move North to escape the poverty, limited opportunity, and virulent and sometimes violent racism of the South, Mary and Henry Owens were part of one of the greatest movements of people in American history, a phenomenon known as the Great Migration.
Given a labor shortage in the North induced by World War I and a halt to European immigration, a massive wave of African Americans from the rural South took place to keep America's northern industries running. Between 1915 and 1920 at least 400,000 African Americans left for the North, and as many as one million joined them in the following decade. By 1920 an estimated 65,000 African Americans from Alabama alone had made the journey northward.
Life indeed was different for the Owens family in the North—so different that a fearful Mary Owens kept the drapes closed in the family's modest apartment for several months after they moved in. The family's east-side neighborhood was racially diverse and economically disadvantaged; after Henry Owens and three of the older Owens sons gained employment in local steel mills, the family nonetheless made a promising start in Cleveland. The youngest Owens enrolled in Bolton Elementary School on the East side, where he was initially placed in the first grade with students much younger than himself. After proving that he could read and write, Owens advanced to the second grade. He also took on a new name, although not by choice. Named James Cleveland at birth, Owens went by his initials "J.C." for the first several years of his life. He adopted the name by which he would become famous after his first teacher in the North failed to understand his southern drawl and put his name down as "Jesse." Too modest to correct his teacher, Owens kept the name.
Athletic Success as a Teenager
Owens enrolled in Cleveland's Fairmount Junior High School around 1927 and quickly attracted the attention of a mentor who would prove crucial in his future athletic success. Charles Riley worked at the school as a physical education teacher and track-and-field coach and immediately realized that Owens was a naturally gifted athlete who had not yet taken up serious training. Riley started a rigorous training program for Owens in special morning sessions before school. Within a year, Owens was running the 100-yard dash in eleven seconds and in 1928 he set two world records for his age group in the high jump, at six feet, and the long jump, at twenty-two feet, eleven and three-quarters inches. Under Riley's instruction to run as though the track were on fire, Owens also improved his times on the track. Of the seventy-nine races he entered in high school, Owens won seventy-five of them. Owens also formed a warm personal relationship off the track with Riley, who continued to coach him after he entered East Technical High School in 1930. After Henry Owens suffered a traffic accident in 1929 and experienced extended periods of unemployment in the Great Depression, Riley's role as a surrogate father was especially important to the young athlete.
|1913||Born September 12 in Danville, Alabama to Henry and Mary Owens|
|1922||Owens family moves to Cleveland, Ohio|
|1928||Sets two world junior-high school records in high jump and long jump|
|1930||Sets high school records in long jump, 100-yard dash, and 200-yard dash|
|1933||Leads East Technical High School to National Interscholastic Championship|
|1933||Enters Ohio State University on track-and-field scholarship|
|1935||Marries Minnie Ruth Solomon|
|1935||Sets five meet records at the Big Ten Track and Field Championship|
|1936||Wins four Gold Medals at the Berlin Olympics|
|1936||Ends amateur athletic career|
|1943||Works in personnel department of Ford Motor Company|
|1946||Opens public relations firm in Chicago|
|1953||Receives appointment to Illinois State Athletic Commission|
|1965||Receives conviction for income tax evasion.|
|1968||Criticizes African-American athletes at Mexico City Olympic Games for giving "Black Power" salute on awards stand|
|1974||Induction into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame|
|1976||Receives Presidential Medal of Freedom|
|1980||Dies in Tucson, Arizona on March 31|
|1983||Induction into the US Olympic Committee Hall of Fame|
As an East Tech track-and-field sensation, Owens became a nationally renown athlete while still in his teens. Although he failed to make the national team in his tryout for the 1932 Olympic Games to be held in Los Angeles, his performance at the June 1933 National Interscholastic Championship, held in Chicago, was stunning. Winning the long jump, 220-yard dash, and 100-yard dash, Owens set and tied the world records in the latter two events. When he returned to Cleveland, the nineteen-year-old was honored with a parade. Several universities competed to offer Owens a place on their track-and-field squads, but Ohio State University (OSU) came up with the best offer. In exchange for an undemanding job as a page in the Ohio State Legislature and the promise of a weekly stipend for attending local civic functions, Owens enrolled at OSU in the fall of 1933. The school also agreed to overlook Owens's lack of a high school diploma, as he had left East Tech before completing all of his required courses.
Now earning a substantial sum of money during the depths of the Depression, Owens sent much of funds back to his parents as well as to longtime girlfriend, (Minnie) Ruth Solomon, who had given birth to their daughter on August 8, 1932. The couple married on July 5, 1935, allegedly after a Cleveland newspaper reporter threatened to publish a photo of their daughter along with an unflattering portrait of the athlete's personal life. The Owenses subsequently had two more daughters. Although talk about his infidelities persisted throughout their union—including his siring of a child by another woman—the couple remained married up to the time of Jesse Owens's death in 1980. Ruth Solomon Owens died in 2001 at the age of eighty-six.
Owens indeed had a lot to lose in a scandal, as he had vaulted into the front ranks of Olympic hopefuls with his masterful performance at the Big Ten Track and Field Championship held in Ann Arbor on Mary 25, 1935. Suffering from a sore back in the early stages of the meet, Owens surprised everyone in the final rounds of the competition. His 220-yard dash, 220-yard hurdles, 200-meter dash, and 200-meter low hurdles times were all new world records—as was his winning broad jump effort—and his time in the 100-yard dash tied the existing world record of 9.4 seconds. Owens's achievement stands as perhaps the best single-day accomplishment of any track-and-field athlete in the history of the discipline.
For his feats at the 1935 Big Ten Championship, Owens seemed certain of winning the James E. Sullivan Award, given annually by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) to the country's best amateur athlete. When it was revealed that OSU sponsors had paid some of the athlete's travel expenses in the guise of reimbursing him for his job in the State Legislature, however, Owens was taken off the list of candidates for the award. More troubling to his future, he had also been threatened with being stripped of his amateur status altogether by the AAU. In the end, the AAU decided that Owens's offense was unintentional. Owens faced another challenge when he was placed on academic probation by OSU for his continuing poor performance in his course work. Owens managed to continue as a full-time student through 1936, but later took classes only intermittently; in 1941 he left OSU altogether without completing a degree.
Related Biography: Coach Charles Riley
Charles Riley was born in 1878 and grew up in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, where he labored as a miner and mill worker. Although he dropped out of high school to work, Riley later attended Temple University in Philadelphia and eventually secured a job as a teacher and coach at Fairmount Junior High School in Cleveland, Ohio. The job paid so little that Riley had to work as a playground superintendent during the summer to support his family, including one son who was born crippled.
Immediately realizing Jesse Owens's potential, Riley took the junior high schooler under his wing with extra practice sessions held in the morning so as not to interfere with the youngster's after-school work obligations. He also invited Owens to his home and treated him like a member of his own family, rare in a time of both informal and legal racial segregation. Owens considered Riley as his second father, and Riley held Owens in equal regard.
Riley's contributions to his student's development occurred both on and off the field. Riley helped to refine Owens's running style; after taking him to see race horses in training to inspire his student, Owens's performance improved markedly. Owens also credited Riley with telling him to run as though the track were on fire, with quick fluid steps and an upright carriage. The advice was a departure from the standard running style of the time and gave Owens an edge against his competition. Off the track, Riley's relationship with Owens gave the young man the confidence he needed to break the racial barriers that then frequently denied equal opportunities to African Americans.
Riley retired and moved to Florida in 1943. Between 1946 and 1960 he had no contact with his acclaimed former pupil, an experience that left him disillusioned. Despite the disappointment, he accepted an invitation to honor Owens at a 1960 television broadcast of This Is Your Life. It was the last time that the coach and his former pupil would meet, as Riley died later that year.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1928||Gold Medals, 100-yard dash and 200-yard dash, National Interscholastic Championship|
|1935||Gold Medals, 100-yard dash, 220-yard dash, broad jump, 220-yard hurdles, 200-meter dash, and 200-meter low hurdles|
|1936||Olympic Gold Medals, 100-meter dash, long jump, 200-meter dash, and 400-meter relay|
|1936||Associated Press Athlete of the Year|
|1974||Induction into the U.S.A. Track and Field Hall of Fame|
|1976||Presidential Medal of Freedom|
|1983||Induction into the U.S. Olympic Committee Hall of Fame|
Star of the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Along with boxer Joe Louis , Owens was one of the best-known African-American athletes by 1936. Owens was also one of the most popular athletes for the sportsmanship he demonstrated on the field. In one competition in mid-1936, Owens offered to run a 50-yard dash again when he learned that a competitor, Eulace Peacock, had suffered from a faulty starting block; the race was conducted again, and Owens came in second to Peacock. He did not contest the outcome and earned public praise for his sense of fair play. Thus, when he earned a place on the U.S. track-and-field delegation to the 1936 Olympics, Jesse Owens was the most admired and talked-about athlete in the contingent.
Owens surpassed all expectations of his performance at the Berlin Games. On August 3, 1936, he took the Gold Medal in the 100-meter dash; his time of 10.3 seconds set a new world record in the event. Owens also set Olympics records in his winning long jump of twenty-six feet, five-and-one-quarter inches and Gold Medal 200-meter dash of 20.7 seconds. Owens's fourth Gold Medal came in the 400-meter relay race; not originally part of the team, Owens and Ralph Metcalfe had been enlisted for the relay in place of two Jewish runners, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller. Glickman immediately accused the U.S. track coaches of giving into the prevalent anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany, although he held Owens blameless for the decision. The relay team won the race in a world- and Olympic-record setting time of 39.8 seconds.
That Owens won four Gold Medals at the Berlin Olympics was astounding; yet his feat also represented a rebuke to the Nazi Party's theories of Aryan racial superiority. Owens later capitalized on his triumph over Nazi ideology by claiming that Adolf Hitler was so upset by his achievements that he refused to congratulate him as he had the other winning athletes. In reality, Hitler only met personally with Gold Medal winners on the opening day of the games; any deliberate snub was unplanned. Yet Owens went on to retell the story of "Hitler's Snub" so many times that it became reported as fact. What was undeniable was that Owens emerged from the games as an American hero.
Checkered Post-Athletic Career
Owens gave up his amateur status after the 1936 Berlin Games and took on numerous paid speaking engagements, including appearances for Republican presidential nominee Alf Landon in the 1936 election, for which he earned $10,000. Owens put some of his earnings into a dry cleaning business in Cleveland, which soon went out of business. With the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) filing suit against Owens for unpaid taxes from his 1936 earnings, Owens declared bankruptcy in May 1939 and struggled to pull his finances together. He took a position in the personnel department of the Ford Motor Company, where he worked from 1943 to 1945, and then pursued a short-lived venture with a sporting goods business in Detroit. In 1946 Owens moved with his family to Chicago, where he started his own public relations agency and remained active in Republican Party politics. After polishing his skills as a public speaker, Owens was able to make a comfortable living as a motivational speaker and his political connections helped him gain an appointment with the Illinois State Athletic Commission in 1953.
As a public relations executive and motivational speaker, Owens finally hit his stride in his post-athletic career. He also began a lucrative association with the Atlantic Richfield Company, which began sponsoring the Jesse Owens Games for Chicago youth in 1965. The next year, however, Owens was convicted for tax evasion. The IRS revealed that Owens had failed to file tax returns between 1954 and 1962 and he was ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $3,000 in addition to his back taxes. Owens emerged from the scandal with his reputation fairly intact. Yet he courted controversy again when he criticized the protest of two African-American athletes at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. The athletes had given a "Black Power" salute of raised fists on the awards podium, which Owens deemed inappropriate. In 1970 Owens published a book that chided Black Power activists, Blackthink: My Life as a Black Man and White Man, although he offered a more conciliatory tone in his 1972 book I Have Changed.
The Legend of Jesse Owens
The last decade of Owens's life brought him renewed acclaim. In 1974 he was inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame and in 1976 President Carter honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Taking up retirement in Scottsdale, Arizona, Owens suffered from physical ailments brought on by his pack-aday smoking habit. The habit resulted in a diagnosis of lung cancer for Owens in 1979. He died in Tucson, Arizona on March 31, 1980 from the disease, leaving behind his wife, Ruth Solomon Owens, and three daughters. He was honored posthumously by an induction into the US Olympic Committee Hall of Fame in 1983.
One of the first African-American athletes to emerge as a truly national hero, Jesse Owens was an important figure in the sporting history of the United States. His participation in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games resulted in four Gold Medals, two with new world records and two with new Olympic records. Indeed, his achievements demanded recognition from sports fans regardless of his ethnicity and inspired future generations of African-American athletes to pursue their own dreams of Olympic greatness. Although his post-Olympic career generated some negative publicity for his business troubles, Owens remained an Olympic legend for the rest of his life. His eventual work as a corporate spokesman and motivational speaker allowed him to burnish this legend to the point where the 1936 Olympics seemed to be all about a confrontation between Owens and Hitler. In the end, his accomplishments alone were enough to rebut all the Nazi claims of Aryan superiority; the legend of Jesse Owens's performance did not need embellishment.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY OWENS:
(With Paul G. Neimark) Blackthink: My Life as Black Man and White Man, William Morrow, 1970.
I Have Changed
For my whole life was wrapped up, summed up—and stopped up—by a single incident: my confrontation with the German dictator, Adolf Hitler, in the 1936 Olympics. The lines were drawn then as they had never been drawn before, or since. The Germans were hosting the Games and, with each passing day, were coming to represent everything that free people have always feared.
To me and my American buddies, most of the German athletes, the German officials, even the hundreds of thousands of German citizens who crammed the stadium those days in Berlin, weren't really our enemies. How could Lutz Long—the Nazi record-breaking broadjumper—be an enemy after he came over and put his arm around my shoulder and told me what I needed to do when I was on the verge of fouling out of that key event and maybe blowing the entire Olympiad?
But Hitler—he was something else. No one with a tinge of red, white, and blue doubted for a second that he was Satan in disguise. Not that I was too involved with Hitler in the beginning. I'd spent my whole life watching my father and mother and older brothers and sisters trying to escape their own kind of Hitler, first in Alabama and then in Cleveland, and all I wanted now was my chance to run as fast and jump as far as I could so I'd never have to look back….
If I could just win those gold medals, I said to myself, the Hitlers of the world would have no more meaning for me. For anyone, maybe.
Source: Jesse Owens with Paul Neimark, I Have Changed, William Morrow, 1972.
(With Paul Neimark) I Have Changed, William Morrow, 1972.
Baker, William J. Jesse Owens: An American Life. New York: Free Press, 1986.
Guttmann, Allen. The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
Owens, Jesse, with Paul Neimark. Blackthink: My Life as Black Man and White Man. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1970.
Owens, Jesse with Paul Neimark. I Have Changed. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1972.
Bennett, Jr., Lerone. "Jesse Owens' Olympic Triumph Over Time and Hitlerism." Ebony (April 1996): 68.
Hemhill, Gloria Owens. "Humiliating Hitler." Newsweek (October 25, 1999): 53.
Kelley, Timothy. "Stealing Hitler's Show." New York Times Upfront (September 4, 2000): 32.
Litsky, Frank. "Jesse Owens Dies of Cancer at 66; Hero of the 1936 Berlin Olympics." New York Times (April 1, 1980).
Taylor, Phil. "Flying in the Face of the Fuhrer." Sports Illustrated (November 29, 1999): 137.
Sketch by Timothy Borden
A young track star
James Cleveland Owens was born in Oakville, Alabama, on September 12, 1913, the son of a sharecropper, a farmer who rents land. He was a sickly child, often too frail to help his father and brothers in the fields. The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1921, for better work opportunities. There was little improvement in their life, but the move did enable young Owens to enter public school, where a teacher accidentally wrote down his name as "Jesse" instead of J. C. He carried the name with him for the rest of his life.
When Owens was in the fifth grade, the athletic supervisor asked him to join the track team. From a skinny boy he developed into a strong runner, and in junior high school he set a record for the 100-yard dash. In high school in 1933 he won the 100-yard dash, the 200-yard dash, and the broad jump in the National Interscholastic Championships. Owens was such a complete athlete, a coach said he seemed to float over the ground when he ran.
Record setter and Olympian
A number of universities actively recruited Owens, but he felt that college was only a dream. He felt he could not leave his struggling family and young wife when a paycheck needed to be earned. Owens finally agreed to enter Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, after officials found employment for his father. In addition to his studies and participation in track, Owens worked three jobs to pay his tuition. He experienced racism (the idea that one race is superior to others) while a student at Ohio State, but the incidents merely strengthened his desire to succeed. At the Big Ten Conference track and field championships at the University of Michigan in 1935, he broke three world records and tied another. His 26 foot 8 1/4-inch broad jump set a record that was not broken for twenty-five years.
Owens was a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic team competing in Berlin, Germany. The African American members of the squad faced the challenges not only of competition but also of Adolph Hitler's (1889–1945) boasts of Aryan supremacy, or the domination of Hitler's ideal white, European athletes. Owens won a total of four gold medals at the Olympic games. As a stunned Hitler angrily left the stadium, German athletes embraced Owens and the spectators chanted his name. He returned to a hero's welcome in America, and was honored with a ticker tape parade in New York City. Within months, however, he was unable to find work to finance his senior year of college. Owens took a job as a playground supervisor, but was soon approached by promoters who wanted him to race against horses and cars. With the money from these exhibitions, he was able to finish school.
In 1937 Owens lent his name to a chain of cleaning shops. They prospered until 1939, when the partners fled, leaving Owens with a bankrupt business and heavy debts. He found employment with the Office of Civilian Defense in Philadelphia (1940–1942) as national director of physical education for African Americans. From 1942 to 1946 he was director of minority employment at Ford Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan. He later became a sales executive for a Chicago sporting goods company.
Ambassador of sport
In 1951 Owens accompanied the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team to Berlin at the invitation of the U.S. High Commission and the army. He was appointed secretary of the Illinois Athletic Commission (1952–1955), and was sent on a global goodwill tour as ambassador of sport for the United States. Also in 1955, he was appointed to the Illinois Youth Commission. In 1956 he organized the Junior Olympic Games for youngsters in Chicago between the ages of twelve and seventeen. Owens and his friend, boxer Joe Louis (1914–1981), were active in helping African American youth.
Owens headed his own public relations firm in Chicago, Illinois, and for several years had a jazz program on Chicago radio. He traveled throughout the United States and overseas, lecturing youth groups. Not especially involved in the civil rights movement, which pushed for equal rights among all races, Owens admired civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968). Owens and his childhood sweetheart, whom he had married in 1931, had three daughters.
Forty years after Owens won his gold medals, he was invited to the White House to accept a Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford (1913–). The following year, the Jesse Owens International Trophy for amateur athletes was established. In 1979 President Jimmy Carter (1924–) honored Owens with a Living Legend Award.
In the 1970s Owens moved his business from Chicago to Phoenix, Arizona, but as time progressed, his health deteriorated. He died of cancer on March 31, 1980, after a lengthy stay in a Phoenix hospital. He was buried in Chicago several days later.
The highest honor Owens received came a full ten years after his death. Congressman Louis Stokes from Cleveland pushed tirelessly to earn Owens a Congressional Gold Medal. President George Bush (1924–) finally gave the award to Owens's widow in 1990. During the ceremony, President Bush called Owens "an Olympic hero and an American hero every day of his life." Owens's fabled career as a runner again caught public attention in the 1996 Olympic Games—the sixtieth anniversary of his Berlin triumph—as entrepreneurs (risk-taking businessmen) hawked everything from Jesse Owens gambling chips to commemorative (having to do with honoring someone or something) oak tree seedlings similar to the one Owens was awarded as a gold medallist in Berlin.
Racism at home had denied Owens the financial fruits of his victory after the 1936 games, but his triumph in what has been called the most important sports story of the century continued to be an inspiration for modern day Olympians like track stars Michael Johnson (1967–) and Carl Lewis (1961–). In Jet magazine (August 1996), Johnson credited Owens for paving the way for his and other black athletes' victories.
For More Information
Baker, William J. Jesse Owens: An American Life. New York: Free Press, 1986.
Josephson, Judith Pinkerton. Jesse Owens, Track and Field Legend. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1997.
Mandell, Richard. The Nazi Olympics. New York: Macmillan, 1971.
Nuwer, Hank. The Legend of Jesse Owens. New York: F. Watts, 1998.
Owens, Jesse. Blackthink: My Life as Black Man and White Man. New York: Morrow, 1970.
American track star Jesse Owens (1913-1980) became the hero of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, as his series of victories scored a moral victory for black athletes.
James Cleveland Owens was born in Oakville, Alabama, on Sept. 12, 1913, the son of a sharecropper. He was a sickly child, often too frail to help his father and brothers in the fields. The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1921. There was little improvement in their life, but the move did enable young Owens to enter public school, where a teacher accidently wrote down his name as "Jesse" instead of J.C. The name stuck for the rest of his life.
When Jesse was in the fifth grade, the athletic supervisor asked him to go out for track. From a spindly boy he developed into a strong runner. In junior high school he set a record for the 100-yard dash. In high school in 1933 he won the 100-yard dash, the 200-yard dash, and the broad jump in the National Interscholastic Championships. Owens was such a complete athlete, a coach said he seemed to float over the ground when he ran.
A number of universities actively recruited Owens, but he felt college was a dream. He felt he could not leave his struggling family and young wife when a paycheck needed to be earned. Owens finally agreed to enter Ohio State University in Columbus after officials found employment for his father. In addition to his studies and participating in track, Owens worked three jobs to pay his tuition. He experienced racism while a student at Ohio State, but the incidents merely strengthened his resolve to succeed. At the "Big Ten" track and field championships (at the University of Michigan) in 1935, he broke three world records and tied another. His 26 foot 8 1/4 inch broad jump set a record that was not broken for 25 years.
Owens was a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic team competing in Berlin. The African-American members of the squad faced the challenges not only of competition but also of Hitler's boasts of Aryan supremacy. Owens won a total of four gold medals at the Olympic games. As a stunned Hitler angrily left the stadium, German athletes embraced Owens and the spectators chanted his name. He returned to America to a hero's welcome, honored at a ticker tape parade in New York. However, within months, he was unable to find work to finance his senior year of college. Owens took work as a playground supervisor, but was soon approached by promoters who wanted to pit him against race horses and cars. With the money from these exhibitions, he was able to finish school.
In 1937 Owens lent his name to a chain of cleaning shops. They prospered until 1939, when the partners fled, leaving Owens a bankrupt business and heavy debts. He found employment with the Office of Civilian Defense in Philadelphia (1940-1942) as national director of physical education for African-Americans. From 1942 to 1946 he was director of minority employment at Ford Motor Company in Detroit. He later became a sales executive for a Chicago sporting goods company.
In 1951 Owens accompanied the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team to Berlin at the invitation of the U.S. High Commission and the Army. He was appointed secretary of the Illinois Athletic Commission (1952-1955), and was sent on a global goodwill tour as ambassador of sport for the United States. Also in 1955, he was appointed to the Illinois Youth Commission. In 1956 he organized the Junior Olympic Games for youngsters in Chicago between the ages of 12 and 17. Owens and his friend Joe Louis were active in helping black youth.
Owens headed his own public relations firm in Chicago and for several years had a jazz program on Chicago radio. He traveled throughout America and abroad, lecturing youth groups. Ideologically moderate, Owens admired Martin Luther King, Jr. Owens and his childhood sweetheart whom he had married in 1931, had three daughters.
Forty years after he won his gold medals, Owens was finally invited to the White House to accept a Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford. The following year, the Jesse Owens International Trophy for amateur athletes was established. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter honored Owens with a Living Legend Award.
In the 1970s Owens moved his business from Chicago to Phoenix, but as time progressed, his health deteriorated. He died of cancer on March 31, 1980, after a lengthy stay in a Phoenix hospital. He was buried in Chicago several days later.
The highest honor Owens received came a full ten years after his death. Congressman Louis Stokes from Cleveland lobbied tirelessly to earn Owens a Congressional Gold Medal. The award was finally given to Owens's widow by President Bush in 1990. During the ceremony, President Bush called Owens "an Olympic hero and an American hero every day of his life."
Owens's fabled career as a runner again caught public attention in the 1996 Olympic Games, and 60th anniversary of his Berlin triumph, as entrepreneurs hawked everything from Jesse Owens gambling chips (Sports Illustrated August 5, 1996) to commemorative oak tree seedlings (American Forests Spring, 1996) reminiscent of one he was awarded as a Gold Medalist in Berlin (Sports Illustrated February 20, 1995).
Racism at home had denied Owens the financial fruits of his victory after the 1936 games, but his triumph in what has been called "the most important sports story of the century," continued to be an inspiration for modern day Olympians such as track stars Michael Johnson and Carl Lewis. In Jet magazine (August 1996), Johnson credited Owens for paving the way for his and other black athletes' victories.
Owens's ideology and much important biographical information can be found in his own book, Blackthink: My Life as Black Man and White Man (1970). John Kieran and Arthur Daley, The Story of the Olympic Games, 776 B.C. to 1968 (1936; rev. ed. 1969), and Richard Mandell, The Nazi Olympics (1971), describe Owens's heroic efforts in 1936. See also Jack Olsen, The Black Athlete: A Shameful Story—The Myth of Integration in American Sport (1968). Articles of interest can be found in Sports Illustrated (August 5, 1996 and February 20, 1995); Ebony (April 1996); and Jet (August 26, 1996 and August 15, 1994). An official Jesse Owens Website can be accessed on the Internet at http://www.cmgww.com/sports/owens/owens.html (July 29, 1997). □
September 12, 1913
March 31, 1980
Born in 1913, the tenth surviving child of sharecroppers Henry and Emma Owens, in Oakville, Alabama, James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens moved with his family to Cleveland, Ohio, for better economic and educational opportunities in the early 1920s. His athletic ability was first noticed by a junior high school teacher of physical education, Charles Riley, who coached him to break several inter-scholastic records and even to make a bold but futile attempt to win a place on the U.S. Olympic team. In 1933 Owens matriculated at Ohio State University on a work study arrangement and immediately began setting Big Ten records. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, on May 25, 1935, he set new world records in the 220-yard sprint, the 220-yard hurdles, and the long jump and tied the world record in the 100-yard dash.
In the racially segregated sports world of 1936, Owens and boxer Joe Louis (1914–1981) were the most visible African-American athletes. In late June, however, Louis lost to German boxer Max Schmeling (1905–), making Owens's Olympic feats all the more dramatic. At Berlin in early August 1936, he stole the Olympic show with gold medal, record-setting performances in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, and relays. All this occurred against a backdrop of Nazi pageantry and German dictator Adolf Hitler's (1889–1945) daily presence and in an international scene of tension and fear. Out of that dramatic moment came one of the most enduring of all sports myths: Hitler's supposed "snub" in refusing to shake Owens's hand after the victories. (Morally satisfying but untrue, the yarn was largely created by American sportswriters. The truth is that by the time Owens won his first gold medal, Hitler was no longer personally congratulating any medal winners.)
Business and entertainment offers flooded Owens's way in the wake of the Berlin games, but he quickly found most of them were bogus. Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon paid him to stump for black votes in the autumn of 1936. After that futile effort, Owens bounced from one demeaning and low-paying job to another, including races against horses. He went bankrupt in a drycleaning business. By 1940, with a wife and three daughters to support (he had married Ruth Solomon in 1935), Owens returned to Ohio State to complete the degree he had abandoned in 1936. However, his grades were too low and his educational background too thin for him to graduate. For most of World War II (1939–45), Owens supervised the black labor force at Ford Motor Company in Detroit.
In the era of the cold war, Owens became a fervent American patriot, hailing the United States as the land of opportunity. Working out of Chicago, he frequently addressed interracial school and civic groups, linking patriotism and athletics. In 1955 the U.S. State Department sent him to conduct athletic clinics, make speeches, and grant interviews as a means of winning friends for America in India, Malaya, and the Philippines.
In 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61) sent him to the Melbourne Olympics as one of the president's personal goodwill ambassadors. Refusing to join the civil rights movement, Owens became so politically conservative that angry young blacks denounced him as an "Uncle Tom" on the occasion of the famous Black Power salutes by Olympic athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos at Mexico City in 1968. Before he died of lung cancer in 1980, however, Owens received two of the nation's highest awards: the Medal of Freedom Award in 1976, for his "inspirational" life, and the Living Legends Award in 1979, for his "dedicated but modest" example of greatness.
Mandell, Richard D. The Nazi Olympics. New York: Ballantine Books, 1971.
william j. baker (1996)
In an era of rigid racial segregation of all the major team sports in the United States, track star and Olympic champion James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens (September 12, 1913–March 31, 1980), along with heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, was the most prominent African-American athlete of the 1930s. Owens, the youngest of ten children born to Henry and Emma Owens in Oakville, Alabama, moved with the family in the early 1920s to Cleveland, Ohio, where he received the nickname of "Jesse" from an elementary school teacher who misunderstood his drawled pronunciation of J. C. In junior high school an energetic physical education teacher, Charles Riley, taught Owens the mechanics of athleticism, as well as proper manners and good citizenship.
A spectacular high school career in track propelled Owens to Ohio State University, where he enrolled in 1933 on a work-study arrangement. As a sophomore (his first year of varsity eligibility), he broke three world records and tied another in the Big Ten finals at Ann Arbor, Michigan. Just over a year later, Owens dominated the Berlin Olympics, winning four gold medals with new world records in the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes, the broad jump, and the 400-meter relay.
These successes were all the sweeter because they occurred under the nose of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. Owens disproved Hitler's theory of Aryan supremacy, and Hitler was reported to have snubbed Owens by refusing to shake his hand. In truth, American sportswriters concocted the snub story for patriotic readers, thus creating one of the most enduring of all American legends. While hotels refused admission to Jesse Owens's parents who had come to New York City to welcome their son home from Berlin, the Hitler snub story allowed racist Americans to focus on bigotry abroad.
After rousing receptions in New York City, Columbus, and Cleveland, the youthful Owens faced the ominous task of finding a job. By now his amateur athletic career was officially finished because the Amateur Athletic Union banned him for refusing to participate in a post-Olympics fund-raising tour of European cities. Instead, Owens rushed home to capitalize on various stage and screen offers. All those proposals turned out to be insubstantial, but Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon paid Owens handsomely to rally black voters in the election of 1936.
That failed effort appropriately represented Owens's unsatisfactory experience from 1937 to the outbreak of World War II. He barnstormed with several athletic and musical groups, supervised a public recreational program in Cleveland, and ran exhibition races at professional baseball games. Often his athletic efforts were clownishly framed on the order of an infamous race against a horse in Havana, Cuba, on the day after Christmas in 1936, and two years later a farcical loss to Joe Louis in a sprint in Chicago between games of a Negro League doubleheader. Owens established a dry-cleaning business in Cleveland, but saw it go bankrupt in 1939; he re-enrolled at Ohio State, but within a week of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Owens gave up his dream of earning a baccalaureate degree.
Had the Cold War and the civil rights movement not cast Owens's Depression-era feats in a new light, he might well have been forgotten. As American-Soviet rivalries turned the Olympic Games into a symbolic war, Owens became a premier showpiece of American success. His modest, conservative style made him an effective antidote to radical blacks, especially after the black-power salutes of two American sprinters at the Mexico City Olympics of 1968. Owens's mature years saw him comfortably active as a public speaker and as a spokesperson for a dozen or so major corporations.
Baker, William J. Jesse Owens: An American Life. 1986.
McRae, Donald. In Black and White: The Untold Story of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens. 2002.
William J. Baker