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Black History Month in Ohio: Jesse Owens

Nicknamed the "Buckeye Bullet" Owens put the world on notice with his athleticism, and delivered a strong rebuke to Hitler's racist myths.

CLEVELAND — Jesse Owens is remember as one of the world's greatest track and field athletes having won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympic Summer Games in Berlin. 

James Cleveland Owens was born in Alabama in 1913. "Jesse" was the youngest of ten children. At age 8, his family moved to Cleveland during a time known as the "Great Migration" in which an estimated six-million Black Americans moved to Northern, Midwestern and Western states to pursue economic opportunities and escape racial violence in the South. 

Owens athletic prowess was first noticed by his Junior High School track coach, where the sprinter set a national junior high school record for the 100-yard dash. 

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As a high school senior at East Technical High School, Owens tied the world record in the 100-yard dash. He eventually set a new world record in the 220 yard dash before heading off to Ohio State University in 1933. 

Credit: WBNS-10TV / Scott Doelling
File photo - Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium, Ohio State University

 

By 1935, Owens broke three world records and tied a fourth at the Big Ten Conference Championships in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His achievements came within an hour's time, making him the only athlete to break multiple track and field world records on the same day. 

In spite of his athletic achievements, Owens was not immune to racial discrimination. At OSU, Owens was not permitted to live on campus with white athletes. And when the track and field team travelled, Owens had to stay in hotels that would accept Black travelers. In restaurants, he had to eat in sections designated for Blacks. Ohio State also did not offer Owens a scholarship. Instead he worked different jobs at the university to pay his tuition.

4th August 1936: 100 metres medallists at the 1936 Berlin Olympic games (left to right : Martinus Osendarp of Holland (bronze), Jesse Owens (1913 - 1980), of the USA (gold) and Ralph Metcalf also of the USA (silver). (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Owens put the world on notice at the 1936 Summer Olympics held in Berlin. There, he won four gold medals in the 100 and 200 meter sprints, in the long jump and the 400 meter relay. Each of the events set new records. 

Owens performance also delivered a strong rebuke to Germany's Chancellor, Adolf Hitler - who intended to use the games to further his racist myths about Aryan supremacy. Owens crushed that by proving to be the most dominant athlete in the 1936 Olympics.  

Though Owens returned home an Olympic champion, he still faced discrimination. He and other Black American medalists did not receive invitations to the White House to meet President Franklin Roosevelt. Only white Olympics received an invitation. 

And in New York City, a ticker-tape parade welcomed the Olympic champion. But the hotel where Owens was honored, required him to take a freight elevator to access the event. 

 Back in Cleveland, Owens got a job with Cleveland's Parks and Recreation Department, before opening a dry-cleaning business.  The business failed and it forced Owens into bankruptcy. To make money, he was forced to put on running exhibitions, and even raced a horse. 

Six years later, Owens was named Director of National Fitness for African Americans, in which he  traveled around the country holding fitness clinics. President Dwight D. Eisenhower enlisted Owens as a goodwill ambassador and sent him to India, and the Philippines.

Ohio State awarded Owens an honorary doctorate of athletic arts in 1972. A lifetime smoker, doctors diagnosed the former Olympian with lung cancer in 1979. He passed away at his home in Tucson, Arizona in 1980. 

In Cleveland, plans are underway for a Jesse Owens Olympic Oak Plaza. The location would be Rockefeller Park in University Circle, just west of Martin Luther King Drive, near East 105th Street. 

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