Who would your pick as the greatest track and field athlete of all time? Someone who tied world records, broke world records, won Gold Medals, and thoroughly humiliated the most famous dictator of all time?
James Cleveland Owens is the name you’re searching for!
Mr. Owens was born September 12, 1913 in Oakville, Alabama, a small community in Lawrence County. His family home was located on a field adjacent to the museum. He was the youngest of ten children and was called “JC” by his family. JC was a sickly as a child, often struck with pneumonia and boils. His parents relied on home remedies to cure him since they had no money for doctors or medications. His parents were sharecroppers, one generation from their enslaved ancestors, and had a hardscrabble life in Alabama.
He developed his love for running at an early age, despite his illnesses, and found power in his ability to move through the world with the power of his two legs.
JC’s family moved to Cleveland, Ohio in 1922 to have a better life. His name change happened when he attended Bolton Elementary School. His instructor thought he said his name was “Jesse” and not “JC” and his Southern upbringing didn’t allow him to correct this adult. And now he was known as Jesse Owens.
High school was a turning point in his life. He meets Minnie Ruth Solomon, who soon becomes his wife, and Coach Riley, who fine tunes his athletic abilities. Owens begins breaking track records in the long jump, relay, and sprint events.
Owens’s talents take him to Ohio State University in 1933 where he is required to live off-campus since the men’s dorm is White-only due to segregation and racism. Jesse continues to break and set new world records and obtains the moniker of “The Buckeye Bullet.” His path to the Olympics is clear and in 1936 he arrives in Berlin, Germany to compete.
On August 1st, he wins the gold medal in the 100 meter. On the 4th, he wins the gold medal in the long jump. On the 5th, he wins gold in the 200 meter and on the 8th, as a member of the relay team, wins the gold medal in the 4×100 relay. Adolf Hitler was furious and skipped shaking his hand or congratulating him as he does the other Olympic athletes. The International Olympic Committee meets with Hitler and informs him that he must shake every winners hand when he meets with them. Hitler circumvents this by no longer publicly meeting with athletes. He meets with German winners in private.
Owens develops a surprising and remarkable friendship with Luz Long, a German athlete, when Long publicly coaches him in winning the long jump gold medal. Although Nazi Germany espoused a theology of the superiority of the “Aryan” race, Long found a brother in the African American. Their friendship lasted until Long’s death in 1943 during WW II. Long wrote a letter to Owens asking his friend to be there for Long’s family and Owens maintained relationships with Long’s children and grandchildren.
This type of relationship not only flew in the face of Nazi racial politics, but also American racial politics. Owens believed sportsmanship and competition could be the bridge to racial justice and harmony. I mean, could you imagine a Black man and a Nazi being life-long friends in 1936 or today?
Owens returned to America after the games and spent the remainder of his life coaching, building businesses, serving on various boards, and receiving the accolades he deserved. In 1970 he was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, in 1976 he received the Medal of Freedom, and he received the Living Legend Award in 1979. He died a year later on March 31, 1980.
The Jesse Owens Museum is a marvel and filled with reproductions that tell the story of his life, triumphs, and commitment to serve and mentor young people. There’s also a long jump pit where you can test your mettle and a replica of his childhood home. It’s located at 7019, County Road 203, Danville, AL 35619. The Welcome Center was closed when I arrived but the museum is located right up the hill. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.