Jesse Owens' Story

Jesse Owens, son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, achieved what no Olympian before him had accomplished.

Jesse Owens won no less than four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. In the process, he became one of the most important and memorable Olympic athletes of all time.

Jesse’s parents were Henry and Emma Alexander Owens. He was their tenth child, and was named James Cleveland when he was born in Alabama on September 12, 1913. He was known as “J.C.” in his early years. At the age of nine, his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. Reportedly, his new teacher mistook “J.C.” as “Jesse” and the name stuck.  

Owens’ athletic career began in 1928 in Cleveland where he set Junior High School records by clearing 6 feet in the high jump, and leaping 22 feet 11 3/4 inches in the running broad jump, now known as the long jump.

During his high school days, he won all the major track events, including the Ohio state championship three consecutive years.

While a high school senior, Jesse Owens attended the National Interscholastic meet in Chicago and set a high school world record by running the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds, tying the accepted world record. He also set a high school world record in the 220-yard dash with a time of 20.7 seconds.

Only days before, Owens set a world record in the long jump by jumping 24 feet 11 3/4 inches. Owens’ sensational high school track career resulted in him being recruited by dozens of colleges. Owens chose the Ohio State University, even though OSU could not offer a track scholarship at the time. He worked various jobs to support himself and his young wife, Ruth.

Owens worked as a night elevator operator, a waiter, and in the library stacks, he pumped gas, and he served as a page in the Ohio Statehouse, all between practices and setting world records in intercollegiate competition.

while at the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor on May 25, 1935, jesse owens set three world records and tied a fourth in a span of about 45 minutes.

Jesse entered the Big Ten Championships in 1935 with a sore back after falling down a flight of stairs. He was not sure he could participate, but convinced his coach to allow him to run the 100-yard dash as a test. Jesse recorded an official time of 9.4 seconds, again tying the world record. He then participated in three more events and set world records every time. In only about 45 minutes, Jesse accomplished what many believe is the greatest athletic feat in history: setting three world records and tying a fourth in four grueling track and field events.

His success at the 1935 Big Ten Championships gave him the confidence that he was ready to proceed to the Olympics. Jesse entered the 1936 Berlin Olympics and provided the most effective response to Hitler’s Aryan race theory by winning multiple Olympic gold medals.

Jesse owens became the first American track & field athlete to win four gold medals in a single Olympiad.

Jesse Owens’ Olympic success was unmatched until 1984, when Carl Lewis also won four Olympic gold medals in the Los Angeles Olympics. Since then, some Olympians have won more gold medals, but Jesse Owens’ Olympic gold medals stood for more than just athletic success. During a time of segregation as well as the rise of Nazi Germany, Jesse Owens rebuked Hitler’s race theory.

Jesse Owens showed the way for millions of athletes and the world at large.  Owens dedicated his time to working with kids, and was generous in sharing his time and resources.  Jesse Owens demonstrated the potential for humanity and the good that can be accomplished through courage, determination, and resiliency.  

Athletes didn't return from the Olympics to lucrative advertising and endorsement campaigns in those days, so Owens supported his young family with a variety of jobs.

Jesse held various positions, but serving as playground director in Cleveland was particularly instrumental for him. Here, Owens took a step into what would become a lifetime of working with underprivileged youth, which gave him great satisfaction. After relocating to Chicago, he devoted much of his time to underprivileged youth as a board member and former director of the Chicago Boys’ Club.

Owens traveled widely in his post-Olympic days. He was an inspirational speaker, highly sought after to address youth groups, professional organizations, civic meetings, sports banquets, PTAs, church organizations, brotherhood and black history programs, as well as high school and college commencements and ceremonies.

He was also a public relations representative and consultant to many corporations, including Atlantic Richfield, Ford and the United States Olympic Committee.

A complete list of the many awards and honors presented to Jesse Owens by groups around the world would fill dozens of pages.

In 1976, Jesse was awarded the highest civilian honor in the United States when President Gerald Ford presented him with the Medal of Freedom in front of the members of the U.S. Montreal Olympic team in attendance. In February, 1979, he returned to the White House, where President Carter presented him with the Living Legend Award.

On that occasion, President Carter said this about Jesse, “A young man who possibly didn’t even realize the superb nature of his own capabilities went to the Olympics and performed in a way that I don’t believe has ever been equaled since…and since this superb achievement, he has continued in his own dedicated but modest way to inspire others to reach for greatness”.

Jesse Owens died from complications due to lung cancer on March 31, 1980 in Tucson, Arizona.

Although words of sorrow, sympathy and admiration poured in from all over the world, President Carter said it best when he stated: “Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry. His personal triumphs as a world-class athlete and record holder were the prelude to a career devoted to helping others. His work with young athletes, as an unofficial ambassador overseas, and a spokesman for freedom are a rich legacy to his fellow Americans.”

Jesse’s spirit still lives in his three daughters, Gloria, Marlene, and Beverly, and their work with the Jesse Owens Foundation. The Foundation continues to carry on Jesse’s legacy by providing financial assistance, support, and services to young individuals with untapped potential in order to develop their talents, broaden their horizons, and become better citizens. There is no doubt that Jesse would be proud.