Jesse Owens, who took four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics, was bom James C. Cleveland in Danville, Alabama, the sev¬ enth of eleven children. His family was very poor and James Cleveland, or J.C. as he was called, went to work at the age of seven picking cotton. His family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and J.C. joined the Fair¬ mont Junior High School track and field team.
At East Technical High School, a teacher mispronounced his initials, and J.C. became Jesse for good.Owens began running track in high school and continued while at Ohio State. In May, 1935, he competed in the Big Ten College Track and Field Championships and broke three world records. He qualified for the 1936 Olympic Games.
Owens competed at the Games in Berlin, Germany, where Adolf Hitler watched him challenge and defeat Germany’s Aryan ath¬letes. Owens took four gold medals, deliv¬ ering a stinging blow to Hitler’s theory of Aryan superiority. In the hundred meter, two hundred meter, long jump and four hundred meter relay, Owens beat the world’s top athletes — of all races.
Though a story circulated that Hitler snubbed Owens at the presentation ceremo¬ ny, Owens denied the mmor, though he admitted that Hitler watched him with bit¬ terness. As writer Columbus Salley pointed out, “Owens and his athletic records long outlived Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.”
When Owens returned home to the US, he was met by a ticker tape parade. Held up as a national hero, he was particularly embraced by African-American athletes, who used his example to help them break through stereotypes everywhere.
Owens, though one ofthe world’s greatest athletes, did not have a job to support his wife and two children. Accepting a position as a playground instructor because he couldn’t afford to finish college, Owens worked for $30 a week until he was offered a huge prize if he could beat a racehorse in the hundred yard dash.
The prize money was enough to send Owens back to college, where he completed his degree. He joined other ventures, including a chain of dry cleaners, but when his business partner disappeared, leaving Owens thousands of dollars in debt, he took a job with the Ford Motor Company.
The Owens family moved to Chicago in 1949, where Owens was able to use his reputation as a tool. Going into public relations, Owens began lecturing on athletic superiority as a tool for building teams between races. He was granted the Medal of Freedom by US President Gerald Ford in 1976, four years before he died of lung cancer.