Today is the birthday (1913) of James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens (September 12, 1913 – March 31, 1980) who was a US track and field athlete and four-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1936 Games. He is often remembered as the African-American athlete who embarrassed Hitler at the Berlin Games, and you frequently see movie clips of Hitler leaving the stadium, appearing to show that he was disgusted to have his Aryan race athletes defeated by a definitively non-Aryan. This is a complete misrepresentation. In fact, Hitler shook hands with Owens and congratulated him, as Owens himself recalls (and there was purportedly a photo of them shaking hands that has since disappeared). FDR, on the other hand, refused to meet with Owens after the Games, and never congratulated him. Indeed, Owens’ life in the US after the Games was extremely hard.
Owens was the youngest of ten children, three girls and seven boys, born to Henry Cleveland Owens (a sharecropper) and Mary Emma Fitzgerald in Oakville, Alabama. J.C., as he was called, was 9 years old when the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, for better opportunities, as part of the Great Migration, when 1.5 million African Americans left the segregated South. When his new teacher asked his name (to enter in her roll book), he said “J.C.”, but because of his strong Southern accent, she thought he said “Jesse”. The name stuck, and he was known as Jesse Owens for the rest of his life.
As a youth, Owens took different jobs in his spare time: he delivered groceries, loaded freight cars and worked in a shoe repair shop while his father and older brother worked at a steel mill. During this period, Owens realized that he had a passion for running. Throughout his life, Owens attributed the success of his athletic career to the encouragement of Charles Riley, his junior high school track coach at Fairmount Junior High School. Since Owens worked in a shoe repair shop after school, Riley allowed him to practice before school instead.
Owens first came to national attention when he was a student of East Technical High School in Cleveland; he equaled the world record of 9.4 seconds in the 100-yards (91 m) and long-jumped 24 feet 9 ½ inches (7.56 meters) at the 1933 National High School Championship in Chicago. Owens attended Ohio State University after his father found employment, which ensured that the family could be supported. Under the coaching of Larry Snyder, Owens won a record eight individual NCAA championships, four each in 1935 and 1936. (The record of four gold medals at the NCAA was equaled only by Xavier Carter in 2006, although his many titles also included relay medals.) Though Owens enjoyed athletic success, he had to live off campus with other African-American athletes. When he traveled with the team, Owens was restricted to ordering carry-out or eating at “blacks-only” restaurants. Similarly, he had to stay at “blacks-only” hotels. Owens did not receive a scholarship for his efforts, so he continued to take part-time jobs to pay for school.
Owens achieved track and field immortality in a span of 45 minutes on May 25th, 1935, during the Big Ten meet at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he set three world records and tied a fourth. He equaled the world record for the 100-yards (9.4 seconds), and set world records in the long jump (26 ft 8 ¼ in or 8.13 m, a world record that would last for 25 years); 220 yards (20.3 seconds); and 220-yard low hurdles (22.6 seconds, becoming the first to break 23 seconds).
On December 4th, 1935, NAACP Secretary Walter Francis White wrote a letter to Owens, although he never actually sent it. He wanted to dissuade Owens from taking part in the Olympics on the grounds that an African-American should not promote a racist regime after what African-Americans had suffered at the hands of white racists in his own country. In the months prior to the Games, a movement gained momentum in favor of a boycott. Owens was convinced by the NAACP to declare “If there are minorities in Germany who are being discriminated against, the United States should withdraw from the 1936 Olympics.” Yet he and others eventually took part after Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee branded them “un-American agitators.”
In 1936, Owens and his United States teammates sailed on the SS Manhattan and arrived in Berlin to compete at the Summer Olympics. Owens arrived at the new Olympic stadium to a throng of fans, according to fellow American sprinter James LuValle (who won the bronze in the 400 meters), many of them young girls yelling “Wo ist Jesse? Wo ist Jesse?” Owens’ success at the games did present problems for Hitler, who was using them to show the world a resurgent Nazi Germany. He and other government officials had high hopes that German athletes would dominate the games with victories. Just before the competitions, Adi Dassler visited Owens in the Olympic village. He was the founder of the Adidas athletic shoe company, and he persuaded Owens to wear Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik shoes. This was the first ever sponsorship for a male African American athlete.
On August 3rd Owens won the 100 meters with a time of 10.3 s, defeating teammate and college friend Ralph Metcalfe by a tenth of a second and defeating Tinus Osendarp of the Netherlands by two tenths of a second. On August 4th, he won the long jump with a jump of 8.06 m (26 ft 5 in) (3¼ inches short of his own world record). He later credited this achievement to the technical advice that he received from Luz Long, the German competitor whom he defeated. On August 5th, he won the 200 meters with a time of 20.7 s, defeating teammate Mack Robinson (the older brother of Jackie Robinson). On August 9th, he won his fourth gold medal in the 4 × 100 m sprint relay when head coach Lawson Robertson replaced Jewish-American sprinters Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller with Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, who teamed with Frank Wykoff and Foy Draper to set a world record of 39.8 s in the event. Owens’ record-breaking performance of four gold medals was not equaled until Carl Lewis won gold medals in the same events at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Owens set the world record in the long jump with a jump of 8.13 m (26 ft 8 in) in 1935, the year before the Berlin Olympics, and this record stood for 25 years until it was broken in 1960 by countryman Ralph Boston.
The long-jump victory is documented, along with many other 1936 events, in the 1938 film Olympia by Leni Riefenstahl. On August 1st, 1936, Hitler shook hands with the German victors only and then left the stadium. International Olympic Committee president Henri de Baillet-Latour insisted that Hitler greet every medalist or none at all. Hitler opted for the latter and skipped all further medal presentations. On August 2nd Hitler did not publicly congratulate any of the medal winners. Even so, the communist New York City newspaper the Daily Worker claimed Hitler received all the track winners except Johnson (African-American high jumper) and left the stadium as a “deliberate snub” after watching Johnson’s winning jump. Hitler was subsequently accused of failing to acknowledge Owens (who won gold medals on August 3, 4 (two), and 8) or shake his hand. Owens responded to these claims at the time:
Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave. It happened he had to leave before the victory ceremony after the 100 meters. But before he left I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me and I waved back. I think it was bad taste to criticize the ‘man of the hour’ in another country.
In an article dated August 4, 1936, the African-American newspaper editor Robert L. Vann describes witnessing Hitler “salute” Owens for having won gold in the 100m sprint (August 3):
And then … wonder of wonders … I saw Herr Adolph Hitler, salute this lad. I looked on with a heart which beat proudly as the lad who was crowned king of the 100 meters event, get an ovation the like of which I have never heard before. I saw Jesse Owens greeted by the Grand Chancellor of this country as a brilliant sun peeped out through the clouds. I saw a vast crowd of some 85,000 or 90,000 people stand up and cheer him to the echo.
Albert Speer wrote that Hitler “was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games.”
In a 2009 interview, German journalist Siegfried Mischner claimed that Owens carried around a photograph in his wallet of the Führer shaking his hand before the latter left the stadium. Owens, who felt that the newspapers of the day reported “unfairly” on Hitler’s attitude towards him, tried to get Mischner and his journalist colleagues to change the accepted version of history in the 1960s. Mischner claimed that Owens showed him the photograph and told him: “That was one of my most beautiful moments.” Mischner added: “(the picture) was taken behind the honour stand and so not captured by the world’s press. But I saw it, I saw him shaking Hitler’s hand!” According to Mischner, “the predominating opinion in post-war Germany was that Hitler had ignored Owens, so we therefore decided not to report on the photo. The consensus was that Hitler had to continue to be painted in a bad light in relation to Owens.” For some time, Mischner’s assertion was not confirmed independently of his own account, and Mischner himself admitted in Mail Online: “All my colleagues are dead, Owens is dead. I thought this was the last chance to set the record straight. I have no idea where the photo is or even if it exists still.”
However, in 2014, Eric Brown, British fighter pilot and test pilot, the Fleet Air Arm’s most decorated living pilot, independently stated in a BBC documentary: “I actually witnessed Hitler shaking hands with Jesse Owens and congratulating him on what he had achieved.” Additionally, an article in The Baltimore Sun in August 1936 reported that Hitler sent Owens a commemorative inscribed cabinet photograph of himself.
Meanwhile . . . on October 15th, 1936, Owens repeated this allegation when he addressed an audience of African Americans at a Republican rally in Kansas City, remarking: “Hitler didn’t snub me — it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” A real instance of the pot calling the kettle – er – Black. The US was just as replete with racism as Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust originated in eugenics carried out by scientists in California who instructed the Nazis in the 1930s. Joseph Mengele was taught by Americans!!!! Furthermore, the US refused to get involved in the Second World War until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. To be fair, Britain, France, and Russia did not want to get involved either until their homelands were threatened.
In Germany, Owens had been allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels as whites, at a time when African Americans in many parts of the United States had to stay in segregated hotels that accommodated only Blacks. When Owens returned to the United States, he was greeted in New York City by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. During a Manhattan ticker-tape parade in his honor along Broadway’s Canyon of Heroes, someone handed Owens a paper bag. Owens paid it little mind until the parade concluded. When he opened it up, he found that the bag contained $10,000 in cash. Owens’s wife Ruth later said: “And he [Owens] didn’t know who was good enough to do a thing like that. And with all the excitement around, he didn’t pick it up right away. He didn’t pick it up until he got ready to get out of the car.” After the parade, Owens was not permitted to enter through the main doors of the Waldorf Astoria New York and instead forced to travel up to the event in a freight elevator to reach the reception honoring him. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) never invited Jesse Owens to the White House following his triumphs at the Olympic Games. When the Democrats bid for his support, Owens rejected those overtures: as a staunch Republican, he endorsed Alf Landon, Roosevelt’s Republican opponent in the 1936 presidential race.
Owens joined the Republican Party after returning from Europe and was paid to campaign for African American votes for the Republican presidential nominee Alf Landon in the 1936 presidential election. Speaking at a Republican rally held in Baltimore on October 9, 1936, Owens said: “Some people say Hitler snubbed me. But I tell you, Hitler did not snub me. I am not knocking the President. Remember, I am not a politician, but remember that the President did not send me a message of congratulations because, people said, he was too busy.”
After the games had ended, the entire Olympic team was invited to compete in Sweden. Owens decided to capitalize on his success by returning to the United States to take up some of the more lucrative endorsement offers. United States athletic officials were furious and withdrew his amateur status, which immediately ended his career. Owens was angry, saying, “A fellow desires something for himself.” Owens argued that the racial discrimination he had faced throughout his athletic career, such as not being eligible for scholarships in college and therefore being unable to take classes between training and working to pay his way, meant he had to give up on amateur athletics in pursuit of financial gain elsewhere.
Jesse Owens returned home from the 1936 Olympics with four gold medals and international fame, but there were no guarantees for his future prosperity. Racism was still prevalent in the United States, and he had difficulty finding work. He took on menial jobs as a gas station attendant, playground janitor, and manager of a dry cleaning firm. He also raced against amateurs and horses for cash.
Owens was prohibited from making appearances at amateur sporting events to bolster his profile, and he found out that the commercial offers had all but disappeared. In 1937, he briefly toured with a twelve-piece jazz band under contract with Consolidated Artists but found it unfulfilling. He also made appearances at baseball games and other events. Finally, Willis Ward—a friend and former competitor from the University of Michigan— brought Owens to Detroit in 1942 to work at Ford Motor Company as Assistant Personnel Director. He later became a director, where he worked until 1946.
Owens helped promote the exploitation film Mom and Dad in African American neighborhoods. He tried to make a living as a sports promoter, essentially an entertainer. He would give local sprinters a ten- or twenty-yard start and beat them in the 100-yd (91-m) dash. He also challenged and defeated racehorses; as he revealed later, the trick was to race a high-strung thoroughbred that would be frightened by the starter’s shotgun and give him a bad jump. Owens said, “People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.” On the lack of opportunities, Owens added, “There was no television, no big advertising, no endorsements then. Not for a black man, anyway.”
Owens ran a dry cleaning business and worked as a gas station attendant to earn a living, but he eventually filed for bankruptcy. In 1966, he was successfully prosecuted for tax evasion. At rock bottom, he was aided in beginning his rehabilitation. The government appointed him as a US goodwill ambassador. Owens traveled the world and spoke to companies such as the Ford Motor Company and stakeholders such as the United States Olympic Committee. By this time, Civil Rights had made a mark.
Owens initially refused to support the black power salute by African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics. He told them:
The black fist is a meaningless symbol. When you open it, you have nothing but fingers – weak, empty fingers. The only time the black fist has significance is when there’s money inside. There’s where the power lies.
Four years later in his 1972 book I Have Changed, he revised his opinion:
I realized now that militancy in the best sense of the word was the only answer where the black man was concerned, that any black man who wasn’t a militant in 1970 was either blind or a coward.
Owens traveled to Munich for the 1972 Summer Olympics as a special guest of the West German government, meeting West German Chancellor Willy Brandt and former boxer Max Schmeling.
A few months before his death, Owens had unsuccessfully tried to convince President Jimmy Carter to withdraw his demand that the United States boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He argued that the Olympic ideal was supposed to be observed as a time-out from war and that it was above politics.
Owens was a pack-a-day cigarette smoker for 35 years, having started at age 32. Beginning in December 1979, he was hospitalized on and off with an extremely aggressive and drug-resistant type of lung cancer. He died of the disease at age 66 in Tucson, Arizona, on March 31, 1980, with his wife and other family members at his bedside. He was buried at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago. Although Jimmy Carter had ignored Owens’ request to cancel the Olympic boycott, the President issued a tribute to Owens after he died: “Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry.”
One of the great old timey recipes from Alabama is bananas and custard, which is as easy to make as it sounds. It is not to be confused with banana cream pie, or banana custard pie. You’ll need bananas, vanilla biscuits (cookies), egg custard, and toasted meringues.
Make an egg custard of your choice. I make a classic egg custard in a double boiler, which is not complicated – egg yolks, cream, and sugar. Use the whites to make meringues. Assemble by cutting bananas into a bowl and adding an equal quantity of vanilla biscuits or wafers. Pour custard over the bananas and biscuits to cover, and chill. When ready to serve, top with meringues.