Nazi Germany was known for many things. Accepting people of different races or ethnicities was not one of them.
But in 1936, 18 US African-American athletes competed at the Berlin Olympic games. Among these athletes, Jesse Owens emerged as a consummate competitor and champion.
This Black History Month, let’s celebrate an outstanding athlete and groundbreaking American.
James Cleveland Owens was born September 12, 1913 in Oakville, Alabama to sharecropping parents. Young James was often ill as a child, suffering from upper respiratory ailments. When James 9, the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio.
In Ohio, James’ thick southern accent sometimes led to misunderstandings. When James introduced himself to a new classmate as “J.C.,” the boy thought Owens had said “Jesse.” The name stuck for life.
Jesse’s time in Ohio also introduced him to running.
Jesse set records in the 100 and 200 yard dash at his high school. After graduation, Jesse enrolled at The Ohio State University, and joined the track and field team. Jesse competed in the 100 yard dash, 220 yard dash, 220 yard hurdles, and the long jump. He continued to set records, earning himself the nickname “Buckeye Bullet.”
At the 1935 Big 10 Track and Field Championships, Jesse set three world records and tied a fourth record. All in about 45 minutes. And he had accomplished all of this while injured from a fall down a flight of stairs.
Jesse entered the Berlin Olympics with confidence.
However, Nazi Germany was less than welcoming. Newspapers called the African-American athletes “auxilliaries.”
The US team, and Jesse, went on to win eleven gold medals (56 total). Six of those gold medals were won by African-American athletes; four by Jesse Owens alone.
Jesse won the 100 and 200 meter races and the long jumps. He was also on the 400 meter relay team that captured gold. There are conflicting reports about how Adolf Hitler reacted. Some claim that Hitler congratulated Jesse; others say that he stormed out of the stadium after Jesse won the 100 meter race.
After the Games, Jesse returned home to the status quo.
Despite helping to dent the Nazi’s claim of racial superiority by winning so many events, Jesse Owens returned home to the same segregation policies and laws. He was not greeted by President Roosevelt, as was customary for returning Olympic Champions.
As he said himself, “When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus.”
After retiring from amateur athletics (until fairly recently, all US Olympic athletes had to be amateurs; essentially, earning no money from their athletic abilities), Jesse raced cars and played for the Harlem Globetrotters. He also created his own marketing and public relations firm in Chicago, Illinois.
Jesse Owens passed away on March 31, 1980 due to complications from lung cancer.
Jesse is in the news today.
On February 19, Race hit theaters nationwide. The movie tells the complicated story of Jesse and the 1936 Olympics. While it is not appropriate viewing for younger children, middle and high school students will learn a lot about the experience of living, and becoming famous, during the early years of the Civil Rights movement. There are also obvious connections to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio this summer.
It is so important to teach our children about the struggle of our country to achieve equality for all people. And to remind them that the struggle is still on going.
So many amazing African-Americans have contributed greatly and immeasurably to our country. It is important that we remember to include these great Americans in ALL of our teaching.
How do you plan to teach about African-Americans in the Olympics, or about Jesse Owens?