During the 1930s, the Great Depression, Jim Crow Era laws and de facto segregation kept African-Americans in the United States fighting for equality. In Eastern Europe, the Jewish Holocaust was well underway with German ruler Adolf Hitler spearheading a Nazi Regime.
In 1936, the Summer Olympics were to be played in Germany. Hitler saw this as an opportunity to show the inferiority of non-Aryans. Yet, a young track and field star from Cleveland, Ohio had other plans.
His name was Jesse Owens and by the end of the Olympics, he'd won four gold medals and refuted Hitler's propaganda.
- First American to win four Olympic gold medals
- Earned an honorary doctorate of athletic arts from Ohio State University in 1973. The University awarded Owens with this doctorate for " his unparalleled skill and ability" as an athlete and for "his personification of sportsmanship ideals."
- 1976 Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by President Gerald Ford.
On September 12, 1913, James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens was born. Owens' parents, Henry and Mary Emma were sharecroppers who raised 10 children in Oakville, Ala. By 1920s the Owens family was participating in the Great Migration and settled in Cleveland, Ohio.
A Track Star is Born
Owens interest in running track came while attending middle school. His gym teacher, Charles Riley, encouraged Owens to join the track team. Riley taught Owens to train for longer races such as the 100 and 200-yard dashes. Riley continued to work with Owens while he was a high school student. With Riley's guidance, Owens was able to win every race he entered.
By 1932, Owens was preparing to tryout for the U.S. Olympic Team and compete at the Summer Games in Los Angeles. Yet at the Midwestern preliminary trials, Owens was defeated in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash as well as the long jump.
Owens did not allow this loss to defeat him. In his senior year of high school, Owens was elected president of the student council and captain of the track team. That year, Owens also placed first in 75 out of 79 races he entered. He also set a new record in the long jump at the interscholastic state finals.
His biggest victory came when he won the long jump, setting a world record in the 220-yard dash and also tied a world record in the 100-yard dash. When Owens returned to Cleveland, he was greeted with a victory parade.
Ohio State University: Student and Track Star
Owens chose to attend Ohio State University where he could continue to train and work part-time as a freight elevator operator at the State House. Barred from living in OSU's dormitory because he was African-American, Owens lives in a boarding house with other African-American students.
Owens trained with Larry Snyder who helped the runner perfect his starting time and altering his long-jump style. In May 1935, Owens set world records in the 220-yard dash, the 220-yard low hurdles as well as the long jump at the Big Ten Finals held in Ann Arbor, Mich.
In 1936, James “Jesse” Owens arrived at the Summer Olympics ready to compete. Hosted in Germany at the height of Hitler's Nazi Regime, the games were filled with controversy. Hitler wanted to use the games for Nazi propaganda and to promote “Aryan racial superiority.” Owens' performance at the 1936 Olympic refuted all of Hitler's propaganda. On August 3, 1936, Owners won the 100m sprint. The following day, he won the gold medal for the long jump. On August 5, Owens won the 200m sprint and finally, on August 9 he was added the 4 x 100m relay team.
Life After the Olympics
Jesse Owens returned home to the United States with not much fanfare. President Franklin D. Roosevelt never met with Owens, a tradition usually afforded Olympic champions. Yet Owens was not surprised by the lackluster celebration saying, "When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn't ride in the front of the bus… .I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. I wasn't invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either."
Owens found work racing against cars and horses. He also played for the Harlem Globetrotters. Owens later found success in the field of marketing and spoke at conventions and business meetings.
Personal Life and Death
Owens married Minnie Ruth Solomon in 1935. The couple had three daughters. Owens died of lung cancer on March 31, 1980 at his home in Arizona.