John Ergon Golpe ’24
Born on September 12, 1913, in Oakville, Alabama, James Cleveland “J.C.” Owens was the seventh child of Henry Cleveland Owens and Emma Alexander Owens. Henry Owens was a sharecropper, and along with Emma, descended from a lengthy line of people trapped and traumatized by decades of slavery in the United States of America.
To call Owens’s early childhood gruelling would be an understatement. He frequently suffered from chronic bronchial congestion and pneumonia. Despite his condition, his parents expected him to earn his keep in the family by picking up 100 pounds of cotton every day to help put food on the table.
At the age of nine, his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where his school setting transitioned from the familiar one-room schoolhouse in Alabama to a larger building filled with strict teachers. It was in this new school that the future Olympic legend would be given his more recognizable nickname when one of his teachers mistook his name for “Jesse” instead of “J.C.” due to his Southern accent.
It was only in 1928 when Owens’s athletic career began. In Junior High, he set State records by clearing six feet in the high jump and making 22 feet and 11 inches in the long jump.
While attending East Technical High School, Owens set records in the 100 (9.4 seconds) and 200-yard dashes (20.7 seconds), as well as in the long jump for a second time (24 feet 11 inches). At Cleveland High School, Owens won three events at the 1933 National Interscholastic Championships in Chicago, Illinois. These groundbreaking records would catch the attention of numerous universities, many of which made recruitment offers. Owens would choose to be enrolled at Ohio State University. However, due to the university’s inability to offer a track scholarship at the time, Owens had to work numerous jobs to support his education and wife, Minnie Ruth, whom he married in 1935. Owens worked as an elevator operator, waiter, page, gas pumper, and as a book organizer at a library, all the while attending practices and setting more records in intercollegiate competitions.
That same year, Owens competed in the Big Ten Championships on behalf of his school, tying the world record for the 100-yard dash (9.4 seconds), surpassing the world records for the 220-yard dash (20.3 seconds), 220-yard hurdles (22.6 seconds), and the long jump (26.5 feet). He also won four events at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Championships, two events at the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Championships, and three events at the Olympic Trials that same year. These world records would earn Owens the nickname “The Buckeye Bullet.”
The following year saw Owens enter the 1936 Olympics that were held in Nazi Germany. His success at these games would cement Owens’s name in history as one of the many American heroes who stood in the way of the Nazi regime, preventing them from realizing their twisted goals of achieving supremacy.
When Germany was chosen to host the Olympics, Adolf Hitler wanted to use the major global event as a means of demonstrating the Aryan race’s “inherent superiority.” While Hitler expected total German victory in all the games, he instead saw Owens win gold in the 100-metre run (10.3 seconds, an Olympic record), 200-metre run (20.7 seconds, another world record), the long jump (8.1 metres), and the 4 x 100-metre relay (39.8 seconds). Jesse Owens became the first Track & Field athlete to win four gold medals in a single Olympiad.
It was Owens’s very own country that neglected his accomplishments. On the day Owens returned to the U.S., President Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to meet and congratulate him on behalf of the nation.
Owens was not phased or disgruntled by his unjust treatment. Instead, he expected that his situation would improve. “When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either.” It was only in 1976 was Owens was given the recognition he deserved, this time from President Gerald Ford with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
After the 1936 Olympics, Owens retired from amateur athletics and began earning profit for his physical prowess. He raced against cars and horses and played with the Harlem Globetrotters for a time. Owens also worked as a playground director for underprivileged youth, which gave him plenty of satisfaction.
Eventually, Owens ventured into public relations and marketing. He set up a business in Chicago and frequently made trips around the country to host speeches at conventions for youth groups, professional organizations, civic meetings, sports banquets, PTAs, church organizations, brotherhood and Black history programs, as well as high school and college ceremonies.
On March 31, 1980, Jesse Owens died in Tucson, Arizona from lung cancer. It was said that he smoked up to a pack of cigarettes per day for a good chunk of his life. He shared his life with Ruth for 48 years, raising three daughters, Gloria, Beverly, and Marlene together. Ruth Owens became a longtime chairperson of the Jesse Owens Foundation, an organization that supports the development of youth. She died in 2001 from heart failure. Although Owens was disregarded in his time, he is a prominent figure not only as a person of colour but in the athletics world too.