Jesse Owens – “Smooth as the West Wind”

Today, our journey begins in Appalachia’s Lawrence County, Alabama, where the mountains are more like hills, or, like a far-off friend reminding us, “I’m here.” Inside the county, the small town of Oakville boasts two outstanding parks and museums. One park is the Oakville Indian Mounds Park and Museum. The other is the Jesse Owens Memorial Park and Museum, honoring the birthplace of arguably the 20th century’s greatest athlete, Jesse Owens.

 

Alabama

James Cleveland (J.C.) Owens was born in Oakville on September 12, 1913, to Henry Cleveland Owens and Mary Emma Fitzgerald Owens. Jesse’s parents were the children of slaves. His grandparents were reportedly brought to America from Africa in the 1830s. He was the baby of the family – the last of ten living children.1)Henry and Emma had a total of 13 children, three of whom died.

His parents were sharecroppers, which meant they farmed a landlord’s property and received a shared percentage of the crop as payment. Tenants often had to pay to rent farm equipment. Further, families could place things (food, seed, etc.) on credit at the market and pay when harvest came. If the farm didn’t produce enough, the debts were added to the next year’s harvest, thus ensuring the tenant was in someone’s debt year after year after year. With a mule inherited from his father, Henry came to the “sharecropper’s shanty” and made, “an agreement with his white landlord, Albert C. Owens, to till several acres each year.”2)Baker, William J. 1986. Jesse Owens: an American Life. New York: Free Press: Collier Macmillan.

Jesse spent most of his childhood in Oakville. His early days were rife with health issues and injuries. He had several bouts of pneumonia and almost died. He developed some type of mysterious growths (some sources say boils) on his body. The family had no money for a doctor, so his mother cut out the growths herself, though it almost killed him. Jesse also sustained a few injuries in his youth. His foot was once caught in a steel animal trap and almost amputated. He was hit by a “farm vehicle”3)Nuwer, Hank. 1998. The Legend of Jesse Owens. New York: F. Watts. – and miraculously emerged without a scratch.

A Sharecropper Gallery

 

Ohio

The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, sometime in the 1920s for better job opportunities during the Great Black Migration.4)Over six million African Americans moved, close to the same time, to northern states for work. White communities were vehemently against the sudden influx of African Americans, believing their jobs and livelihoods were threatened. Consequently, little to no jobs existed in Cleveland for African Americans when the Owens family moved there.

Fortunately, Jesse did well in Ohio. His name became “Jesse” when a teacher asked his name and interpreted his drawled “J.C.,” as “Jesse.” He attended Fairmount Junior High School, where he met the love of his life, Minnie Ruth Solomon (known as “Ruth”). He joined Fairmont’s track team under coach Charles Riley. Jesse subsequently broke records in junior high school when he cleared 6 feet in the high jump and leapt 22 feet 11 ¾ inches in what is now the long jump.

In high school, Jesse won every track competition, including Ohio’s state championship, for three years in a row. In his senior year, he set a new high school record when he ran the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds. He ran the 220-yard dash in 20.7 seconds, and set a new record in the long jump, leaping 24 feet 11 ¾ inches.

Ohio State University

Jesse and Ruth married sometime (likely) in 1932.5)The 1932 information was gathered from the Ohio State University Archives. This date makes Jesse nineteen years old and Ruth seventeen.6)The Jesse Owens Memorial Park Museum has them married on July 5, 1930. That would make him seventeen years old and Ruth fifteen. Needless to say, several colleges wanted to recruit him. He settled on Ohio State University (OSU), a campus that prided itself on integration. The year was 1933. Though OSU touted integration, Jesse wasn’t allowed to live in the dorms because he was black. Instead, he and his black teammates had to live off campus in the “black section of Columbus.”7)Nuwer, Hank. 1998. The Legend of Jesse Owens. New York: F. Watts. His intense schedule included classes, track, and practice. He also worked a variety of jobs: elevator operator, waiter, gas attendant, etc. He even “served a stint as a page in the Ohio Statehouse”8)Jesse Owens Trust. n.d. “About Jesse Owens.” Jesse Owens Website. Accessed Jan 2022. Travel was segregated during competitions, so, with his earnings, Jesse and a teammate bought a 1914 Ford and drove to track meets. The racism they faced during these travels is painful to read. For example, when they stopped for food, black athletes sat hungry outside while their white teammates ate in restaurants. Hank Nuwer notes an experience in his book, The Legend of Jesse Owens:

Once, after teammates brought plates of food from a “whites-only” restaurant for the black athletes to eat inside the Ford, the angry restaurant owner snatched away the plates, affronted that blacks were eating off them.9)Nuwer, Hank. 1998. The Legend of Jesse Owens. New York: F. Watts.

Jesse set new records at the Big Ten Championship (see footnotes for stats),10)According to the Jesse Owens Memorial Park Museum, his stats are: in the hundred-yard dash (9.6 seconds), the 220-yard dash (21.0 seconds), and the long jump (24 ft, 10 inches).11)Larry Schwartz in his ESPN article, “Owens Pierced a Myth,” lists the achievements as follows: 100-yard dash (9.4 seconds); Long jump (26 & 8 ¼ ); 220-yard dash (20.3 seconds); 220-yard low hurdles (22.6 seconds) 12)Richard Rothschild reports in the Sports Illustrated article, “Greatest 45 minutes ever in sports”: 100-yard dash (9.4 official seconds with more than half clocking 9.3 seconds); Long jump (26 feet, 8 ¼ inches); 220-yard dash (20.3 seconds); 220 low hurdles (22.6 seconds) averaging “a world record every 11 minutes.”13)Rothschild, Richard. 2016. “Greatest 45 Minutes Ever in Sports.” Sports Illustrated. Aug 9. He won 42 events, achieving “4 firsts at the Big Ten Championships, 4 in the NCAA Championships and 2 in the NAAU [National Amateur Athletic Union] Championships.”14)Jesse Owens Memorial Park Museum . n.d. “Biography.” Jesse Owens Memorial Park Museum. Accessed Jan 2022. He also won three at the Olympic Trials. His successes with OSU spurred him on to the Olympics.

Ohio Gallery

 

1936 Olympics

In Germany, Berlin “was bristling with Nazism, red-and-black swastikas flying everywhere.”15)Schwartz, Larry. n.d. “Owens Pierced a Myth.” ESPN . Accessed Feb 2022. Some Germans were mortified that whites and “negroes” had to associate. Sportswriters wrote contemptuous articles saying it was “an unparalleled disgrace and degradation,” and insisted “The blacks must be excluded.” Hitler, however, wanted nothing to impede his upcoming plans, so he granted African Americans permission to compete. Plus, according to the rules, if Hitler hadn’t agreed, Germany wouldn’t sponsor the Olympics.

Hitler believed his “Aryan” Olympians would certainly win against African Americans and justify his “racial system.” The cornerstone of his ideal society was “a northern European man and woman who were light-skinned, Anglo-Saxon, fair-haired and blue-eyed.” Jesse, the antithesis of Hitler’s model, “crushed Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy.”16)Schwartz, Larry. n.d. “Owens Pierced a Myth.” ESPN . Accessed Feb 2022.

Jesse befriended his competitor, German “super athlete” Luz Long. Owens won the gold medal in the third jump with 26 feet 5 ½17)Nuwer, Hank. 1998. The Legend of Jesse Owens. New York: F. Watts.18)The Jesse Owens Memorial Park Museum lists the jump as 26 feet, 5 ¼ inches. inches, setting a “new world and Olympic record.” Experts said the jump “was out of human reach.”19)Nuwer, Hank. 1998. The Legend of Jesse Owens. New York: F. Watts. Luz graciously congratulated Owens, patting him on the back, then walking arm in arm.

After Jesse won that long jump, Hitler was conspicuously absent from his box. Jesse had poignant words to say about the utter hypocrisy of the incident:

When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I still couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. And use the service elevator. I still couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I also wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President [FDR], either.

Jesse won three more gold medals: the 100-meter race with a time of 10.3 seconds; the 200-meter run with a time of 20.7 seconds; and the 4×100 relay with a record-breaking time of 39.9 seconds. Other relay participants were Ralph Metcalfe, Foy Draper, and Frank Wykoff.

Jesse was the “first American track & field athlete to win four gold medals in a single Olympiad”(emphasis added),20)Jesse Owens Trust. n.d. “About Jesse Owens.” Jesse Owens Website. Accessed Jan 2022. an achievement that lasted until Carl Lewis in 1984. Owens reportedly “glided over the track.”21)Nuwer, Hank. 1998. The Legend of Jesse Owens. New York: F. Watts. One journalist said: “Jesse was as smooth as the west wind.”22)Nuwer, Hank. 1998. The Legend of Jesse Owens. New York: F. Watts.

Nazi publications downplayed the African American victories, saying the athletes were merely “black auxiliaries.” Most German people, however, adored Jesse for his talent, civility, and sportsmanship.23)Nuwer, Hank. 1998. The Legend of Jesse Owens. New York: F. Watts. He said German spectators “gave him the warmest ovation of his life.”24)Baker, William J. 1986. Jesse Owens: an American Life. New York: Free Press: Collier Macmillan.

Olympic Gallery

 

After it all

After the Olympics were over, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) saw a gold mine in the track team, particularly in Jesse. They convinced him to sign a contract and tour Europe as their “star drawing card” – without pay.25)Nuwer, Hank. 1998. The Legend of Jesse Owens. New York: F. Watts. Jesse’s Ohio State coach, Larry Snyder, was livid. In effect, Jesse had back-to-back events and constant travel without a break. Further, he couldn’t see his wife or new daughter. Owens was so exhausted and burned out, he no longer cared, and lost competitions. When the AAU told him to go to Sweden, Snyder found a caveat. Owens signed a contract for Europe not Sweden. After a fierce argument between Snyder and an AAU official, the AAU suspended Owens for noncompliance. Further, they refused to award him Best Amateur Athlete. He would’ve been the first African American to receive the award.

When he returned to the U.S., Owens received several profitable offers, but nothing panned out. He said at the time:

After I came home from the Olympics with my four medals, it became increasingly apparent that everyone was going to slap me on the back, want to shake my hand or have me up to their suite. But no one was going to offer me a job.

 

Hard Times

For decades, Jesse worked anywhere he could. He toured with Bojangles Robinson for a time. He gave various lectures and delivered speeches. He tried to schedule racing competitions, but the AAU threatened any amateur athlete who raced against Owens with expulsion. So, he raced against horses. The races paid $2,000 for each win (and he always won). He admitted years later that, by doing so, he’d lost  “his self-respect.”26)Nuwer, Hank. 1998. The Legend of Jesse Owens. New York: F. Watts. He worked in low paying jobs and toured with various sports teams like the black baseball league’s Indianapolis Clowns, racing horses and local runners. He left sports for a time and tried business, but failed. He filed for bankruptcy in 1939. He and his family moved back to Cleveland and he tried to go back to college. The experience was fruitless, and Owens left college for a second time.

Hard Times Gallery

 

1940s — 1970s

During the war, Jesse worked at sports clinics and “physical fitness seminars for the U.S. government’s Civil Defense Office” from 1941-1942.27)Nuwer, Hank. 1998. The Legend of Jesse Owens. New York: F. Watts. Afterward, he worked in Detroit as a manager for an automobile-turned-defense factory. The opportunity helped set his finances back on track. Ford also hired him as their “Director of Negro Personnel,” and, later, in their public relations.

In the late-1940s, Owens’s name was relevant again. He used his popularity and endorsed various products. Further, when Jackie Robinson became the first African American player in major league baseball, he credited Joe Lewis and Jesse Owens for the opportunity. When the Olympics returned in 1948,28)The Olympic Games saw a twelve-year absence during World War II track athletes wanted to “match or beat”29)Nuwer, Hank. 1998. The Legend of Jesse Owens. New York: F. Watts. Owens’s records. Stories about Owens appeared everywhere.

In the 1950s, Owens found more success and stability in his life. He revisited Berlin’s stadium in 1951 and spoke to an adoring crowd of 75,000. He still struggled to find something meaningful that “anchored”30)Nuwer, Hank. 1998. The Legend of Jesse Owens. New York: F. Watts. him. Martin Luther King Jr. advised him to “build on what you know, what you love . . . something related to that part [Olympic] of your life . . .”31)Nuwer, Hank. 1998. The Legend of Jesse Owens. New York: F. Watts. Jesse became an exemplar for poor and unfortunate children to better their lives through athletics. He was appointed to the Illinois Youth commission and was also on Chicago’s South Side Boys Club board of directors. He received various government appointments to promote the merits of amateur sports throughout the world: a goodwill mission to India; became an Ambassador of Sports; personal representative to Australia’s Melbourne Olympic Games.

The sixties were just as chaotic for Owens as they were for the rest of the country. He was hired as the New York Mets running coach sometime around 1965. But he found himself in trouble with the IRS and barely squeaked by with a minimal fine. He had what was considered controversial views about Civil Rights in the 1960s. Jesse long before adopted Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of optimism, slow advances, and individualism. He believed the problem wasn’t race but an unfair society with class hierarchy. He was one of the first persons to speak out against the Black Power movement, especially the raised fist protests in the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games.

Owens was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1970. President Nixon made him a goodwill ambassador to West Africa. OSU presented him with an honorary doctorate of athletic arts in 1972. President Gerald Ford awarded Owens the Medal of Freedom; and President Jimmy Carter awarded him the Living Legend Award. His civil rights opinions evolved over time, prompting him to write the book I Have Changed (Morrow, 1972).

Sometime in the late-1970s, Owens had a lingering cough and cold. His wife convinced him to move to Phoenix, Arizona, for better air quality. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1979. His last public words were: “The road to the Olympics leads, in the end, to the best within us.”32)Nuwer, Hank. 1998. The Legend of Jesse Owens. New York: F. Watts. He died on March 31, 1980 at 67 years old.

1940s – 1970sGallery

Legacy

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush awarded Owens with a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal. Jesse and Ruth had three daughters (Gloria, Marlene, and Beverly) who carry on his legacy through the Jesse Owens Foundation, which provides money and support for young people with “untapped potential.”33)Jesse Owens Trust. n.d. “About Jesse Owens.” Jesse Owens Website. Accessed Jan 2022. Jesse Owens was a man with goodness, determination, and spirit — the foundation for the quintessential Appalachian character. He was a truly remarkable man who “wowed” the world. He not only soared above the ground in long jumps, hurdles, and races, he also rose above discrimination and mistreatment, thereby providing future generations with a symbol of tenacity and sportsmanship.

Legacy Gallery

 

Jesse Owens Videos

Full list of sources:

 

References

References
1 Henry and Emma had a total of 13 children, three of whom died.
2, 24 Baker, William J. 1986. Jesse Owens: an American Life. New York: Free Press: Collier Macmillan.
3, 7, 9, 17, 19, 21, 22, 23, 25, 26, 27, 29, 30, 31, 32 Nuwer, Hank. 1998. The Legend of Jesse Owens. New York: F. Watts.
4 Over six million African Americans moved, close to the same time, to northern states for work.
5 The 1932 information was gathered from the Ohio State University Archives. This date makes Jesse nineteen years old and Ruth seventeen.
6 The Jesse Owens Memorial Park Museum has them married on July 5, 1930. That would make him seventeen years old and Ruth fifteen.
8, 20, 33 Jesse Owens Trust. n.d. “About Jesse Owens.” Jesse Owens Website. Accessed Jan 2022.
10 According to the Jesse Owens Memorial Park Museum, his stats are: in the hundred-yard dash (9.6 seconds), the 220-yard dash (21.0 seconds), and the long jump (24 ft, 10 inches).
11 Larry Schwartz in his ESPN article, “Owens Pierced a Myth,” lists the achievements as follows: 100-yard dash (9.4 seconds); Long jump (26 & 8 ¼ ); 220-yard dash (20.3 seconds); 220-yard low hurdles (22.6 seconds)
12 Richard Rothschild reports in the Sports Illustrated article, “Greatest 45 minutes ever in sports”: 100-yard dash (9.4 official seconds with more than half clocking 9.3 seconds); Long jump (26 feet, 8 ¼ inches); 220-yard dash (20.3 seconds); 220 low hurdles (22.6 seconds)
13 Rothschild, Richard. 2016. “Greatest 45 Minutes Ever in Sports.” Sports Illustrated. Aug 9.
14 Jesse Owens Memorial Park Museum . n.d. “Biography.” Jesse Owens Memorial Park Museum. Accessed Jan 2022.
15, 16 Schwartz, Larry. n.d. “Owens Pierced a Myth.” ESPN . Accessed Feb 2022.
18 The Jesse Owens Memorial Park Museum lists the jump as 26 feet, 5 ¼ inches.
28 The Olympic Games saw a twelve-year absence during World War II

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