Jesse Owens was First African-American Athlete Superstar

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Others

Today there are many African-American superstars who are serving as role models. In the mid-1930s there was only one international black hero and that was Jesse Owens. Jesse burst upon the scene in 1936 at the Berlin Olympics where he won four gold metals and made a mockery of Adolf Hitler’s claim that the German Aryan people were the dominant race.

Owens’s wife, Ruth, and three daughters attended the opening ceremonies of the annual Jesse Owens Track and Field Classic at the opening of the new Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium at Ohio State University.

The new track replaced the one that had circled the football field in the Ohio State football stadium known as the “horseshoe.” The horseshoe had recently been enlarged as part of a renovation project that required removal of the running track.

The original structure of the horseshoe dates back to 1922. A little known fact is that Orville Wright, along with Katharine, attended football games at Ohio State and contributed to the $1 million campaign to build the horseshoe.

The Owen’s family was involved in the important decision to move the track that Jesse had made famous.

Young Prodigy

Jesse was born in Oakville, Alabama in 1913 of poor sharecropper parents. The Owens family moved to Cleveland in 1922 to find work. It was there in Bolton Elementary school that J. C. Owens received the name Jesse. The teacher mispronounced his initials, J.C., as Jesse.

It was in gym class in junior high school, that his track story begins. Students were timed in the 60-yard dash. When Coach Charlie Riley saw the raw, yet natural talent that young Jessie had, he immediately invited him to run for the track team. Although Jessie was unable to participate in after-school practices because of work, Coach Riley offered to train him in the mornings. Jessie agreed.

By the 8th grade, Jessie was competing in junior high meets. About a year after the training began, Jessie ran the 100-yard dash in 11 seconds. Then in 1928 Jesse set his first of many innumerable records: 6 feet in the high jump and 22 feet 11¾ inches in the long jump. Both were new world marks for junior high school.

Thus began a life-long relationship between Riley and Jessie. In Jesse, Riley found the surrogate athletic son he never had. For Jesse, Riley was the first white man he ever knew. Owens later in life said, “He proved to me beyond all proof that a white man can understand and love a Negro.” “He trained me to become a man as well as an athlete.”

At Cleveland East Technical High School Jesse became a track star with a time of 9.4 seconds in the 100-yard dash, setting a world record. He won 75 of 79 races he ran in high school.

Blossoming at Ohio State

Many colleges tried to recruit Jesse. In 1933, He chose to attend Ohio State University. There, his development continued under Coach Larry Snider who also became his Olympic coach. Snyder liked to say that Jesse’s style was so smooth and light that “he never bruised the cinders.”

In 1935, Jesse had his greatest single day in track and field. At a Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he set three world records and tied a fourth, all in a span of 70 minutes. He tied his own world record in the 100-yard dash and set new world records in the long jump, 220 and 220 hurdles.

Olympic Triumph

At the end of his sophomore year he participated in the 1936 Olympics known as the Hitler Olympics. Jesse was triumphant in the 100-meter, the 200-meter dash, and the broad jump and was a key member of the winning 400-meter relay team. The performance etched his name into history.

Hitler wasn’t pleased with his performance and never congratulated him. Unfortunately, President Franklin D. Roosevelt never did either.

Post-Olympic Setback

After the Olympics, Jesse turned professional and dropped out of school. This was not a good period in his life, as many lucrative job offers didn’t pan out. He worked a variety of jobs to support his wife and three daughters. One of the unusual things he did was race against racehorses in exhibitions and win.

He returned to Ohio State in 1940 as a student and assistant track coach but was dismissed a year later for poor grades in science and math. Unfortunately, the quality of his pre-college education was marginal. He never did graduate, but did receive an honorary doctorate from Ohio State in 1972.

Two of his three daughters also attended Ohio State. His daughter, Marlene, was the homecoming queen in 1960.

Final Triumph

Jesse became successful later in life and no longer had to scramble for lucrative opportunities. In fact his problem was just the reverse; that of deciding which offer to accept. He was a businessman and involved in many activities involving children including serving as Executive Director of the Chicago South Side Boys Club.

He was in great demand as a polished speaker. He honed his talents as a speaker while a student at Ohio State. One of the ways he made money was to speak to schools and service organizations on behalf of the school. He received $50 expense money for each speech.

In 1976, Jesse was awarded the highest honor a civilian can receive. President Gerald Ford awarded him with the Medal of Freedom. Ten years after his death his widow was presented the Congressional Gold Medal from President Bush for his humanitarian contributions to the “race for life.”

Racism was alive and well in the 1930s and Owens experienced his share of it. He overcame racism and bigotry to prove to the world that African-Americans could be successful in sports and other endeavors. He considered himself an American first and a black man second.

Jesse died on March 31, 1980 at the age of 66 in Tucson, Arizona from lung cancer.

One of the letters in the Jesse Owens’s collection came from North Carolina. A young man wrote it on March 25, 1980 as Owens was dying.

“I wish you could get better but there comes a day when you go to sleep for the last time and I will keep you in my heart the rest of my life because there probably wouldn’t be a Boys Club if you wouldn’t have been born.” Signed by “your fan, Lance C. Johnson,” Boys’ Club of Wake County, NC.

On January 15, 2003, Owen’s daughters Marlene Rankine and Gloria Owens Hemphill unveiled the Wheaties box featuring their father in a ceremony at Ohio State University. Ohio State President, Karen Holbrook, said, “I am thrilled in honoring one of our most renowned athletes of all time, somebody who has inspired people for years and has literally changed the world. The legend of Jesse Owens is known and admired everywhere.”

Where are Jesse’s Oak Trees?

Each gold medallist at the 1936 Olympics was given an oak sapling from the Black Forest as the living reminder of their achievement. Jesse received four.

Jeff Nagy of Columbus, Ohio has researched what has happened to these trees. The tree Jesse was awarded for winning the long jump was planted at his mother’s house in Cleveland, Ohio. It died.

The tree awarded for winning the 4×100-meter dash, Jessie gave to two of his teammates – Foy Draper and Frank Wykoff, both of USC. The tree died of root rot in 2002. A replacement was planted in April 2005 in Associates Park at an USC-UCLA track meet.

The tree awarded for winning the 200-meter dash still is alive near the Cleveland Rhodes High School near its football stadium. Jesse practiced and participated in track at this location because his high school didn’t have a track.

The fourth tree was awarded for winning the 100-meter dash. No one knows for sure what happened to this tree. All that is known is that Jesse intended to plant the sapling on the Ohio State University campus.

Various teammates and classmates of Jesse believe an oak tree adjacent to the south side of the main library is Jesse’s tree. Their opinion is given credibility by an urban forester that lives in the Columbus area. Steven R. Cothrel wrote in a report in 1988 that the suspect tree is 52 or 53 years old which would place its planting as 1936.

Jeff Nagy asked Owen’s daughter, Marlene Rankin, about it. She told Nagy, “The question of whether the oak tree on campus, is it the oak tree? I don’t know. I guess it just depends on if you want it to be it or not. If it can be traced back to 1936, then that’s good enough for me.”

In the picture I’m standing next to the 100-inch base diameter, 50-foot tall tree. There is no plague or marker that identifies the significance of the tree.

A number of students walked by while the picture was taken. They appeared to wonder why I was having my picture taken besides this particular tree.

References: Jesse Owens by William J. Baker, 1986; Buckeye Sports Bulletin by Darrell Dawson, May 14

Previous post:

Next post: