James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens
September 12, 1913 – March 31, 1980
Notable: Track & Field Athlete
James Cleveland Owens was born in Oakville, Alabama to parents who were sharecroppers and themselves the children of former slaves. Owens was a sickly child who suffered from multiple illnesses which included bouts of pneumonia and chronic bronchial congestion. Yet, by the age of seven, he was pitching in to help his family by picking cotton. Two years later he relocated with his family to Cleveland, Ohio where his accent resulted in a teacher misunderstanding that he went by his initials “J.C.” which led to her calling him “Jesse”. The nickname stuck and from then forward he was called Jesse Owens.
By junior high school Owens was a solid student-athlete setting records in both the high and long jump. Owens continued to be a standout track and field star in high school setting 100-yard, 200-yard, and long jump records that garnered national attention. His string of record-breaking wins resulted in a lot of attention from college recruiters.
Ultimately Owens decided to attend Ohio State University although the school did not offer him a track scholarship. In addition to his responsibilities as a student and athlete, Owens was also married. He worked a series of odd jobs to provide for himself and his wife.
Yet, his performance streak continued earning him the additional nickname the “Buckeye Bullet”. Leading up to the 1935 Big Ten Championship Owens slipped while playing with roommates and suffered a painful tailbone injury. But on the day of the big meet, he pulled it together and tied the 100-yard dash record as well as set long jump, 220-yard, and 220-yard hurdle records. During that year, Owens competed in 42 events of which he won all.
Key among those wins were his performances at the Olympic trials which cemented his spot on the 1936 United States Olympic Track Team. Owens’ place on the team was well deserved because he was a great athlete. It was also significant because the 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin, Germany just a few years before the start of World War II. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis intended to use the Olympics as an international display of their athletes to prove their ideology of Aryan supremacy. With the largest delegation of athletes and competing on their home turf, the German athletes dominated, winning the most overall medals for any country.
Hitler had criticized America for sending Black athletes as part of its Olympic team. But Jesse Owens, a Black man who was the son of a sharecropper and descendant of slaves would dominate track and field winning four of America’s 11 gold medals. Owens would win solo medals for the 100-meter, 200-meter, and long jump as well as the 4x100m relay to which he was a last-minute addition. Along the way, he had set three world records and tied a fourth negating the false claims of Hitler’s Nazi propaganda.
Following Owens and the other Black American athletes sweeping the high jump, Hitler hastily left the stadium. Up to that point, he’d been congratulating and speaking with winners from Germany and other select athletes. The departure would come to be viewed as a snub of the Black athletes. Though to be accurate, Hitler did not specifically refuse to congratulate or shake Jesse Owens’ hand. For the rest of the Olympics, Hitler refrained from publicly congratulating any of the athletes though he continued to meet with German winners in private. The German public as well as Olympic athletes applauded Owens and the other Black athletes while the German press provided negative coverage of their wins.
Owens’ performance at the Olympic games was amazing and he rightfully deserves credit for embarrassing the Nazis. But while much is made of Hitler declining to congratulate him in Germany, the American president at that time, Franklin D. Roosevelt, also failed to congratulate or invite him to the White House as was customary. A parade was held in his honor in New York but he was not allowed to use the regular elevators to attend a reception in his honor at the Waldorf-Astoria. Aside from a bit of initial curiosity upon his return to America, he resumed being treated like a regular Black person of the time, a second-class citizen.
With no endorsement deals on the horizon, Owens retired from amateur athletics. He returned to working odd jobs and participated in events where he would race against horses or dogs for money. At one point he was a Harlem Globetrotter. In the 1950s, he achieved a degree of financial stability after establishing a public relations and marketing company in Chicago through which he spoke at conventions and corporate events.
Owens also dedicated some of his time to serving underprivileged kids in Cleveland and later Chicago. He was a secretary of the Illinois State Athletic Commission and made goodwill visits to Asia on behalf of the U.S. Department of State. In 1976, Owens was finally officially recognized for his Olympic performance with a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Congressional Gold Medal in 1990.
James “Jesse” Owens died on March 31, 1980, in Tucson, Arizona from lung cancer. He was survived by his wife of 45 years and his three daughters.
- “About Jesse Owens.” n.d. Jesse Owens. Jesse Owens Trust. Accessed April 6, 2021. http://www.jesseowens.com/about/.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2021. “Jesse Owens.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. January 7, 2021. https://www.biography.com/athlete/jesse-owens.
- History.com Editors, ed. 2020. “Jesse Owens Wins 4th Gold Medal.” HISTORY. A&E Television Networks. August 6, 2020. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/owens-wins-4th-gold-medal.
- Schwartz, Larry. n.d. ESPN. ESPN Internet Ventures. Accessed April 6, 2021. http://www.espn.com/sportscentury/features/00016393.html.
- T. Editors of Encyclopaedia, ed. 2021. “Jesse Owens.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. March 27, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jesse-Owens.
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