Dec 122018
 

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,