Celebrate Black History
James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens (September 12, 1913 – March 31, 1980) was an American track and field athlete who specialized in the sprints and the long jump. He participated in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, where he achieved international fame by winning four gold medals: one each in the 100 meters, the 200meters, the long jump, and as part of the 4×100 meter relay team. He was the most successful athlete at the 1936 Summer Olympics.
The Jesse Owens Award, USA Track and Field’s highest accolade for the year’s best track and field athlete, is named after him, in honor of his significant career.
The son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves, James Cleveland Owens was born on September 12, 1913 in Danville, Alabama. A frail child, Owens was often sick from his battles with chronic bronchial congestion and pneumonia. Still, he was expected to work, and at the young age of seven he was picking up to 100 pounds of cotton a day to help his family put food on the table.
At age nine Owens moved with his family to Cleveland, where the young “J.C.” discovered a world far different than the slower, southern life he’d known. School proved to be one of the bigger changes. Gone was the one-room schoolhouse he’d attended in Alabama, replaced by a bigger setting with stricter teachers. Here, Owens earned the nickname that would stick with him the rest of his life, when one of his instructors, unable to decipher his thick southern accent, believed he said his name was Jesse instead of J.C.
Owens attended Ohio State University after employment was found for his father, ensuring the family could be supported. Affectionately known as the “Buckeye Bullet,” Owens won a record eight individual NCAA championships, four each in 1935 and 1936. (The record of four gold medals at the NCAA was equaled only by Xavier Carter in 2006, although his many titles also included relay medals.) Though Owens enjoyed athletic success, he had to live off campus with other African-American athletes. When he traveled with the team, Owens was restricted to ordering carry-out or eating at “black-only” restaurants. Similarly, he had to stay at “blacks-only” hotels. Owens did not receive a scholarship for his efforts, so he continued to work part-time jobs to pay for school.
Owens’s greatest achievement came in a span of 45 minutes on May 25, 1935, during the Big Ten meet at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he set three world records and tied a fourth. He equaled the world record for the 100 yard dash (9.4 seconds); and set world records in the long jump (26 ft 8 1⁄4 in/8.13 m, a world record that would last 25 years); 220-yard (201.2 m) sprint (20.3 seconds); and 220-yard (201.2m) lowhurdles (22.6 seconds, becoming the first to break 23 seconds). In 2005, University of Central Florida professor of sports history Richard C. Crepeau chose these wins on one day as the most impressive athletic achievement since 1850.
For Adolph Hitler and the Nazis, the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games was expected to be a German showcase and a statement for Aryan supremacy. Most notably, Hitler lambasted America for including black athletes on its Olympic roster.
But it was African Americans who helped cement America’s success at the Olympic Games. In all the U.S. won 11 gold medals, six of them by black athletes. Owens was easily the most dominant athlete to compete. He captured four gold medals (the 100-meter, the long jump, the 200-meter, and the 400-meter relay race) and broke two Olympic records along the way. After Owens won the 100-meter event, a furious Hitler stormed out of the stadium, though some reports later indicated that Hitler congratulated the athlete on his success.
While Owens helped the U.S. triumph at the games, his return home was not met with the kind of fanfare one might expect.
Owens was allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels in Germany as whites, while at the time blacks in many parts of the United States had to stay in segregated hotels while traveling. After a New York City ticker-tape parade of Fifth Avenue in his honor, Owens had to ride the freight elevator at the Waldorf-Astoria to reach the reception honoring him.
Owens said, “Hitler didn’t snub me – it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” On the other hand, Hitler sent Owens a commemorative inscribed cabinet photograph of himself. Jesse Owens was never invited to the White House nor were honors bestowed upon him by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) or his successor Harry S. Truman during their terms. In 1955, President Dwight D.Eisenhower (himself an athlete of note) honored Owens by naming him an “Ambassador of Sports.”
Owens, a pack-a-day cigarette smoker for 35 years, had been hospitalized with an extremely aggressive and drug-resistant type of lung cancer on and off beginning in December 1979. He died in Tucson, Arizona, on March 31, 1980, with his wife and other family members at his bedside. He is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.
This Day In Black History (Feb. 20):
1. FREDERICK DOUGLASS DIES (1895) – Frederick Douglass died on this date.
2. “THE BLIMP” GETS A PATENT! (1900) – On February 20, 1900 J.F. Bickering received a patent for the “AirShip”. The invention was the first blimp (airship) to be powered by an electric motor and have directional controls.
3. RETIRED NBA MVP IS BORN (1963) – Retired NBA player Charles Wade Barkley born in Leeds, Alabama. In 1993, he was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player and during the NBA’s 50th anniversary, named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.
Since retiring from the NBA, Barkley has become a successful color commentator for TNT on basketball.