Jesse Owens

One of the Best Track and Field Athletes of the Century

Olympic Star Jesse Owens
The American track and field athlete Jesse Owens. 1936. (Photo by Austrian Archives/Imagno/Getty Images)

Who Was Jesse Owens?

Jesse Owens, the son of sharecroppers and grandson of slaves, was the first person to win four gold medals in track and field in a modern Olympic Games. In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Owens won gold in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, and the long jump. Then, his relay team won the 400-meter relay. Jesse Owens was an Olympic superstar and is considered one of the best athletes of the 20th century.

Dates: September 12, 1913 - March 31, 1980

Also Known As: James Cleveland Owens (born as), J.C., "The Buckeye Bullet"

Famous Quote: "The battles that count aren't for gold medals. The struggles within yourself -- the invisible, inevitable battles inside all of us -- that's where it's at."

Family and Childhood

James Cleveland Owens was born on September 12, 1913, in Oakville, Alabama as the tenth child of Henry and Mary Emma Owens. James Owens, called “J.C.” by his family, was the grandson of slaves and the son of a sharecropper. The Owens family, like most sharecroppers, were very poor -- living in a dilapidated shanty and barely subsisting.

J.C., the youngest of his family, was a sickly child, suffering from serious bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia throughout his childhood. His family, too poor to call a doctor, often worried that he wouldn’t survive.

J.C., however, wasn’t always sick. When he felt good enough, he would walk the nine miles, each way, to his one-room school in the Baptist Church to be taught by a volunteer teacher.

Despite this, J.C.’s early education was severely lacking, which was something he could never quite overcome.

J.C.’s parents wanted better for him and his siblings and so one day, Henry Owens sold his only mule and all his farm tools to his landlord. It was 1922 -- time to move to Cleveland, Ohio.

The Owens family became part of the Great Migration, a huge exodus of over six million African Americans who moved from the rural South to the cities of the North from 1916 to 1970.

Like others, the Owens family was looking for better jobs and a better life in the North.

Unfortunately, their dream didn’t become a reality. Although Henry and his other sons initially found work in the steel mills, it didn’t last long. Thereafter, they were forced to take odd jobs when and where they could to try to make ends meet.

J.C. on the other hand, did relatively well in Cleveland. He worked part-time jobs (such as with a shoemaker, a grocer, at a gas station, and a greenhouse) to help out his family, but he was also able to go to school.

Education

It was in Cleveland that J. C. started Bolton Elementary School, where nine-year-old J.C. was forced to repeat the second grade. Despite the setback, two important things happened to J.C. while at Bolton Elementary – the first was his nickname and the second was running.

As for a nickname, J.C. already had one – J.C. However, on J.C.’s first day at Bolton, a teacher accidentally gave him a new nickname. When his new teacher asked him his name, he responded, “J.C.,” but the teacher heard, “Jesse.” Too shy to correct her, “Jesse” became his lifelong nickname.

As for running, young Jesse Owens seemed far from athletic. He was small, frequently sick, and seemingly had a weak physique.

However, there was something special about Jesse Owens and track coach Charley Riley spotted it early on. Riley offered to coach Owens after school; however, Owens had to work after school to support his family. Riley made an exception and agreed to coach Owens before school. Within months, the coaching was starting to pay off. Owens was fast.

When Owens moved on to Fairmount Junior High School, Coach Riley continued to help Owens perfect his track and field skills. Owens was getting stronger and was soon setting junior-high records in high jump and broad jump on the school team.

Owens listened carefully to Coach Riley. Riley taught Owens not only to “run like you’re on a red-hot stove” but also gave him advice about how to deal with life’s many challenges. Owens respected Coach Riley and looked upon him as a second father.

In 1928, Coach Riley had Charley Paddock, a white track and field star of the 1920 and 1924 Olympics, address the students at Fairmount Junior High. The experience of meeting Paddock greatly affected Owens. From then on, it became Owens' ambition to compete in the Olympic Games, even though only two black athletes from the United States had been in the 1920 Games, three in 1924, and none in 1928.     

Athletic Triumphs in High School

Jesse Owens continued to train hard. Once at the East Technical High School, Owens won all of the major track events and was the Ohio state champion all three years he was in high school. He was captain of his track team and student body president his senior year.

When his team competed in 1933 at the National Interscholastic Meet in Chicago, Owens set a new high-school world record in the 220-yard dash (20.7 seconds) and tied the world record in the 100-yard dash (9.4. seconds). When the team returned home to Cleveland, the mayor threw them a victory parade.

Marriage and Family

In 1932, 18-year-old Jesse Owens, who was still in high school, was surprised to learn that his 16-year-old sweetheart, Minnie Ruth Solomon, was pregnant. Their daughter, Gloria, was born in August 1932. Ruth quit high school, moved in with her parents, and got a job to support herself and the baby. Owens continued making headlines with his athletic accomplishments.

Jesse and Ruth were later married on July 5, 1935. However, they still lived separately while Owens continued school and went to the Olympics in 1936. They went on to have two more daughters, Marlene (born 1937) and Beverly (born 1940).

Jesse Owens had many admirers and though his name was sometimes linked with other women, he and Ruth stayed together until his death.

College Athletics

Owens became the first person in his family to graduate high school and, to the surprise of his family, went on to Ohio State University, choosing it from many colleges that sought him. Life in Columbus was not easy for a black man.

There were no dorms open to blacks, most restaurants would not serve him, and the only theater he could attend made blacks sit in the last six rows of the balcony.

There were benefits to choosing Ohio State -- for instance, money. College costs lots of money and because of the Great Depression, money was especially hard to come by. Since there were no athletic scholarships for track and field stars at that time, the school helped him find the funds.

This included organizing speaking engagements, a job running a freight elevator, and a position as page in the Ohio legislature.

Unfortunately, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) became suspicious and eventually decided that Owens was being paid for his sports accomplishments rather than real work; thus, he should no longer compete as an amateur. Owens and the university fought to keep his amateur status and won that case.

College was tough for Owens. In addition to working basically a full-time job, he didn’t have the academic background to succeed in classes. Thus, he was on academic probation nearly every term. In athletics, however, Owens was amazing.

Owens participated in many track meets, but it was the Big Ten championship held at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor on May 25, 1935, that made Owens famous. Before 12,000 spectators, Owens broke five world records and tied a sixth.  He was truly the “Buckeye Bullet” (a reference to his college’s nickname, the Buckeye).

Should Americans Go to the 1936 Olympic Games?

Jesse Owens’ college track coach, Larry Snyder, spent two years helping fine-tune Owens’ style, helping shape him into one of the fastest men in the world. That’s when Owens was ready to try out for the 1936 Summer Olympics.

The 1936 Olympic Games were scheduled for Berlin, Germany, at a time when Nazi leader Adolf Hitler was already persecuting Jews and depriving them of citizenship. The AAU proposed a boycott of the Games. American Jews, Protestant and Catholic church groups, labor unions, and various city councils agreed with the move.

Members of the American Olympic Committee (AOC) decided to visit Germany to decide if a boycott was justified. In response, Hitler agreed to soft pedal his racist and militaristic rhetoric, which declared that the Nordic, white, "Aryan" race was superior to all others. The AOC then decided that Americans should compete in the Olympics.

Many in the black press urged African Americans to not participate, but Owens and others saw the Olympics as a chance to shine. Blacks did not compete against whites in very many sports at that time, only in boxing and in track and field events. Winning in Berlin was a chance to show Hitler that he was wrong about who was best.

Owens tried out for and won a place in the Berlin Olympics in July 1936. He and his teammates sailed to Germany on the SS Manhattan, in cabins below deck.

Jesse Owens at the Olympics

Berlin was cold and rainy for the Olympics, making running conditions difficult because of the mud. Jesse Owens first competed in the 100-meter dash. Braced for a chilly reception from the German crowd, Owens was greatly surprised when the German crowd cheered for him. Nervous, but not showing it, Owens ran fast, finishing four feet ahead of his nearest rival. Owens had run the 100-meter in 10.3 seconds, tying the world record and winning his first gold medal.

When the race was done, Hitler did not shake hands with him. This was to start a long-enduring myth that Hitler had left the stadium rather than shake hands with Owens. The truth is that Hitler didn’t want to congratulate any non-Aryan winner. When the Olympics had started, Hitler had been confident that his German athletes would win ever heat; however, when reality proved otherwise, Hitler decided that he had better not congratulate any winner (not even German) or else he’d have to congratulate all of them (including those he considered subhuman).

On the third day of the Olympics, Owens successfully qualified for the 200-meter dash in the morning but had some difficulty with the long jump.

To qualify for the finals in the long jump, an athlete had three tries to jump at least 23 feet 5 inches. Owens fouled the first two attempts, first by taking what he thought was a test run and second by stepping over the starting mark. Owens was a bit dazed by the errors. This was the event that he held the world record in; it would be terrible if he didn’t qualify. He had just one jump left.

Owens later told how German track star Carl  Ludwig “Luz” Long, Owens’ greatest rival in the long jump, gave him the suggestion to mark his take-off spot behind the actual take-off board. Since Owens just had to qualify rather than set any records, he took off a foot before the line and successfully qualified.

In the finals, the two men went head to head, each breaking world records. In his final attempt, Jesse Owens made the largest leap ever made, landing at 26 feet 5 1/2 inches (8.06 meters). Long immediately ran over to congratulate Owens. In a wonderful show of sportsmanship, Long not only put his arm around Owen’s shoulder, he clasped Owens’ hand in his and raised them in the air.

Owens had won his second gold medal and set a new Olympic record that stood for 24 years. Long ended up with the silver medal.

After the long jump event was over, Long and Owens spent hours talking together at the Olympic Village. Despite their different backgrounds and the racial tension of the Olympic Games, Owens and Long became friends. Just a few years later, however, Long was killed in 1943 while fighting in World War II.

Day four of the Olympics, August 5, 1936, was to be the 200-meter finals. By now, Owens was an Olympic star and journalists, fans, and even other Olympians wanted to talk to him, get his autograph, or to take a picture with him.

At the 200-meter race, Owens ran extremely well, especially considering that he was running on a muddy track. He broke the record for 200-meter around a curve by coming in at 20.7 seconds. Owens had earned his third gold medal.

Most believed that Owens was then done with the 1936 Olympics, being able to go home with three gold medals. However, two days later, the U.S. Olympic team chose Owens to replace the lead runner on the 400-meter relay team. Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, another African American, took the places of two Jewish runners who had been scheduled. No one is exactly sure of why this change was made.

In the end, the American relay team won another gold medal. (Owens’ leg of the relay race was in 39.8 seconds, an Olympic and world record.)

With four gold medals, 22-year-old Jesse Owens was a household name in America and throughout the world. The international press proclaimed Owens to be the world's fastest human. Owens was an Olympics superstar.

After the Olympics

Unfortunately, being an Olympics superstar means you have the lack of privacy like a movie star, but not the fortune. Owens hoped that he would be able to head back to the United States and find a way to turn his fame into money. The money never quite materialized.

After an exhausting, ill-planned, fast-paced, barnstorming tour through Europe for the AAU, Owens finally got to go home. The AAU, however, was upset at Owens because he wouldn’t stay in Europe for more exhibition events. They didn’t seem to care that Owens was exhausted, homesick, and desperately needed a rest.  Jesse Owens left anyway with his coach, Larry Snyder, and sailed home on the Queen Mary.

Owens returned home to a hero's welcome with parades in Columbus and Cleveland, but in New York City the reception for the Olympic heroes was cool. To attend the reception for Olympic winners at the Waldorf-Astoria, Owens and other black athletes had to use the back elevator, with the front elevator reserved for "whites only." Also, Hitler wasn’t the only world leader to snub Owens; Owens was not invited to the White House as other medal winners had been and did not receive a note of congratulations from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Once back home, Owens tried to follow up on the numerous lucrative offers that had come in, many of which offered him tens of thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, most of them turned out to be bogus. Owens did go on tour with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, but since Owens’ couldn’t sing, there wasn’t much for him to do.  

Owens was a good speaker and made money from speaking engagements across the country. Owens drew large crowds by speaking about how it felt to break a record, win in Berlin, or be suddenly famous.

Unfortunately, the speaking engagements weren’t enough, and so over the next three years, he traveled all over for exhibitions. Desperate for money, Owens raced against all comers, including cars and horses.

In 1938, the IRS caught up with Owens for failing to turn in a tax return for 1936. Then, just a year later, Owens was forced to declare bankruptcy after the failure of a dry cleaning business that he had opened with some partners.

In 1940, already 27 years old, Owens returned to Ohio State to work on his degree, which was a lifelong dream of his. Owens helped coach track there, but soon found that he was not doing well in his studies. Sadly, he dropped out of school in December 1941. (In 1972, Ohio State awarded him an honorary doctorate in Athletic Arts.)

Wartime Experiences

By 1941, Adolf Hitler's aggression had drawn all of Europe into WWII. By the end of that year, Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor led the United States to declare war on Japan and Germany as well.

Since Owens was married and had children, he wasn’t immediately eligible for the draft. Instead of fighting, Owens worked for the Civilian Defense Office on a national fitness program for kids. In 1942, Owens took a job with the Ford Motor Company to supervise the hiring of African-American workers to keep wartime production rolling, then later worked on public relations. It gave Owens regular hours and an income, but he was still deep in debt.

Post-War Activities

Things began to look up for Owens after WWII ended. His name was back in the news and thus he was asked to provide endorsements of products, which he agreed to many.  Owens was also a public relations representative and consultant to many corporations, including Atlantic Richfield, Ford, and the United States Olympic Committee.

In 1955, Jesse Owens found something new and inspiring to do – he began to work with underprivileged youth. First through the Illinois Youth Commission and then Chicago’s South Side Boys Club, Owens made a difference in the lives of thousands of kids.

Also in 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower sent Owens to Malaya, India, and the Philippines as a Goodwill ambassador. Life magazine in October 1955, praised Owens as "a practically perfect envoy" in a country that was critical of U.S. race relations.

Later Years

Every four years, when the summer Olympics rolled around, Owens would rise again to prominence. Yet, Owens was aging. He was losing his hair and couldn’t run anymore; preferring instead to play basketball or golf.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon sent him as a goodwill ambassador to West Africa. A few months later he toured thirty American cities promoting a television documentary on "The Black Athlete."

Beginning in 1970 he wrote four books with co-author Paul Neimark: Bloodthink: My Life as Black Man and White Man, The Jesse Owens Story, I Have Changed, and Jesse: A Spiritual Autobiography. These books were story and myth combined, growing from the inspirational black-preacher-style of speaking Jesse had developed over the years of barnstorming.

In February 1979, President Jimmy Carter presented Owens with the Living Legend Award at the White House, praising, "his work with young athletes as an unofficial ambassador overseas, and a spokesman for freedom." President Gerald Ford awarded Owens the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to a civilian.

Death

Owens’ health was going downhill by the late 1970s. In the hopes that a change of climate would help, Owens and his wife retired to Arizona. However, as a heavy smoker for 35 years, he couldn’t escape cancer.

Owens died of complications due to lung cancer on March 31, 1980. He was buried in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.

Four years after his death, a four-hour television drama, "The Jesse Owens Story," preceded the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. That year Carl Lewis won gold in all the same events Owens had won in 1936.