No one deserves to be called a great American more that Jesse Owens!
James Cleveland Owens was born in 1913 in a small town in Alabama to Henry and Emma Owens. Everybody called him J.C.. When
eight years old, J.C.‘s parents moved the family to Cleveland, Ohio. J.C.‘s father was seeking a better job and
a better life for his family. J.C. was enrolled in Cleveland’s
Public Schools. On his first day of class when the teacher asked his name, she heard Jesse, instead of J.C.. He would be called
Jesse from then on!
One day in gym class, the students were timed in the 60-yard dash.
When Coach Charlie Riley saw the raw, yet natural talent that young Jesse had, he immediately invited him to run for the track
team. Although Jesse was unable to participate in after-school practices because of work, Coach Riley offered to train him
in the mornings. Jesse agreed.
At Cleveland East Technical High School Jesse became a track star. As a senior, he tied
the world record in the 100-yard dash with a time of 9.4 seconds, only to tie it again while running in the Interscholastic
Championships in Chicago. While in Chicago, he also leaped a distance of 24 feet 9 5/8 inches in the broad-jump.
and universities tried to recruit Jesse; he chose to attend Ohio State University. Here Jesse met some of his fiercest competition,
and not just on the track. The United States was still struggling to desegregate in 1933, which led to many difficult experiences
for Jesse. He was required to live off campus with other African-American athletes. When he traveled with the team, Jesse
could either order carryout or eat at "blacks-only" restaurants. Likewise, he slept in "blacks-only" hotels. On occasion,
a "white" hotel would allow the black athletes to stay, but they had to use the back door, and the stairs instead of the elevator.
Because Jesse was not awarded a scholarship from the university, he continued to work part-time jobs to pay for school.
At the Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor on May 25, 1935, Jesse set three
world records and tied a fourth, all in a span of about 45 minutes. Jesse had an ailing back the entire week leading up to
the meet in Ann Arbor. He had fallen down a flight of stairs, and it was questionable whether he would physically be able
to participate in the meet. He received treatment right up to race time. Confident that the treatment helped, Jesse persuaded
the coach to allow him to run the 100-yard dash. Remarkably, each race timer had clocked him at an official 9.4 seconds, once
again tying the world record. This convinced Owens' coach to allow him to participate in his other events. A mere fifteen
minutes later, Jesse took his first attempt it the broad jump. Prior to jumping, Jesse put a handkerchief at 26 feet 2½ inches,
the distance of the world record. After such a bold gesture, he soared to a distance of 26 feet 8¼ inches, shattering the
old world record by nearly 6 inches.
Disregarding the pain, Jesse proceeded to set a new world record in the 220-yard dash
in 20.3 seconds, besting the old record by three-tenths of a second. Within the next fifteen minutes, Jesse was ready to compete
in another event, this one being the 220-yard low hurdles. In his final event, Owens' official time was 22.6 seconds. This
time would set yet another world record, beating the old record by four-tenths of a second. Jesse Owens had completed a task
that had never been accomplished in the history of track and field. He had set three new world records and equaled a fourth.
By the end of his sophomore year at Ohio State, Jesse realized that
he could be successful on a more competitive level. Jesse entered the 1936 Olympics, which to many are known as the "Hitler
Olympics." These games were to be held in Nazi Germany, and Hitler was going to prove to the world that the German "Aryan"
people were the dominant race. Jesse had different plans, however, and by the end of the games even German fans cheered for
Jesse was triumphant in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash and the broad jump. He was also a key member of the
400-meter relay team that won the Gold Medal. In all but one of these events Jesse set Olympic records. Jesse was the first
American in the history of Olympic Track and Field to win four gold medals in a single Olympics.
Despite his success,
the financial instability of the Owens family continued. Shamefully, at that time in America he was not offered any endorsement
deals because he was black. In an effort to provide for his family, Jesse left school before his senior year to run professionally.
For a while he was a runner-for-hire, racing against anything from people, to horses, to motorcycles. The Negro Baseball league
often hired him to race against thoroughbred horses in an exhibition before every game. Jesse even raced against the some
of the Major Leagues fastest ballplayers, always giving them a 10-yard head start before beating them.
Jesse also took
numerous public-speaking engagements, and was an articulate and enjoyable lecturer. In fact, Jesse was so well-liked and successful
that he started his own public relations firm. He traveled around the country spoke on behalf of companies like Ford and the
United States Olympic Committee. He stressed the importance of religion, hard work and loyalty. He also sponsored and participated
in many youth sports programs in underprivileged neighborhoods.
In 1976, Jesse was awarded the highest honor a civilian
of the United States can receive. President Gerald R. Ford awarded him with the Medal of Freedom. Jesse overcame segregation,
racism and bigotry to prove to the world that African-Americans belonged in the world of athletics. Several years later, on
March 31, 1980, Jesse Owens, 66, died in Tucson from complications due to cancer.
Through all the trials, tribulations
and successes, Jesse Owens was a devoted and loving family man. He married his longtime high school sweetheart, Ruth Solomon,
in 1935. Together they had three daughters, Gloria, Beverly and Marlene. To this day, his widow Ruth and daughter Marlene
operate the Jesse Owens Foundation, striving to provide financial assistance and support to deserving young individuals that
otherwise would not have the opportunity to pursue their goals. Jesse would certainly be proud of their efforts!
Jesse Owens & Bob Holdren
Robert E. Holdren typifies the excellence of character that is the
foundation of society in southeastern Ohio! At a time when it was not popular for “white” people to befriend “black”
people, Mr. Holdren befriended Jesse Owens and visa versa. Their friendship had begun before Jesse Owens won the four Gold
Medals at the 1936 Olympics!
In a recent conversation with Mr. Bob Holdren (April, 2006), Bob told
me some interesting details about some circumstances and events that unfolded during his long friendship with Jesse Owens.
He explained that Jesse had given the other track shoe to a German athlete who had befriended Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympic
Games in Berlin.
In the near future, I hope to do a more detailed interview with Mr.
Holdren and perhaps write a full article about this unique and memorable friendship. If all Americans followed the example
set by these two great men the United States would be a better place for everyone!