Jesse Owens

by Brett from Fredericksburg

Jesse Owens
Bundesarchiv, Bild / CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia

A hero is someone who can endure and overcome major challenges to achieve greatness. A hero never gives up. The thought never even crosses their mind. They are focused and determined on working long and hard to always try harder than their hardest. A hero is someone who does more than help themselves, they never abandon someone who is relying on them, and they always make the best of every situation. That is why my hero is Jesse Owens.

James Cleveland Owens was born on September 12, 1913 in Danville, Alabama. He was the seventh of eleven children to be born to his parents, who made their living as sharecroppers. Their life was rough and there were times when not enough food was available for them all. When James Cleveland, or J.C., was seven they sold their farming equipment and moved out of their small unheated home, setting foot for Cleveland, Ohio where they hoped to find prosperity. The young Owens entered city grade school and was accidentally given the name Jesse by a teacher when she recorded his name of "J.C." He raced with friends in the schoolyard and in his neighborhood. Charles Riley, the Junior High track coach, noticed Jesse and began working with him before school hours, so he could still hold a part time job to help his parents pay bills. In high school, he set national records in the 100m dash, 200m dash, and the broad jump (today called the long jump). Although many colleges were after Owens to be their athlete, he never looked at college as a serious possibility because his family and his wife (he married at eighteen) needed his financial support. Even though he had such great promise, he would not leave his family to be without his financial support. Only after Ohio State found a steady job for his father that would support the family, did he enter college. He did not receive a scholarship and instead paid for his own tuition by working three jobs in addition to keeping up his studies and training hard to become a great athlete. He faced many problems with segregation. In the early 1930's, all African-American students, including Owens, were required to live off campus. On trips to away competitions he had to eat at "blacks-only" restaurants and stay at similar hotels. Occasionally, a "white" hotel would allow him to stay there but he was not allowed to use the elevators or the front door.

Photo courtesy of the BBC Academy
Jesse Owens
Unknown author / Public Domain via Pixabay

On May 25, 1935, Owens traveled to The Big Ten track and field championships, being held in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He had recently fallen down a fight of stairs, and his coaches were not sure if he would be able to participate in the meet. Even if Owens was not completely ready to run, he was determined to compete and do his best. After convincing his coaches, he ran the 100 yard dash. All three of the official timers clocked him at the same 9.4 seconds, tying the previous world record. Only fifteen minutes later, he took first place in the broad jump. He flew 26 feet 8 ¼ inches, shattering the previous world record of 26 ft. 2 ½ inches, by nearly six inches. He went on to compete in the 220 yard dash, finishing with a time of 20.3 seconds, a new world record. He competed in one more event, the 220 yard low hurdles, and set another world record with a time of 22.6 seconds. Despite the pain he had been in, he set three world records and tied a fourth in just over an hour's time, which is practically a world record of its own. This was an amazing feat, but his triumph didn't stop there. He entered the 1936 Olympics that were to be held in Nazi Germany's Capitol, Berlin. Hitler was planning on using these Olympic Games to showcase Aryan athletes like his track and field star Lutz Long. Long and Owens first competed against each other in the broad jump. Long started off by jumping to a new Olympic record. This made Owens very nervous because even though he had previously jumped farther than Long's record, he was only human. Owens missed his first two attempts at the jump, and with only one attempt remaining, he leapt beyond Long's newly made record and to a new Olympic record of his own. Hitler was furious and left the stadium, while the mostly German crowd cheered and chanted for Owens. He went on to also win a gold medal in the 100 meter dash, the 200 meter dash, and the 400 meter relay he was part of.

Photo courtesy of The University of Michigan Stadium Story
Luz Long and Jesse Owens
Unknown author / CC0 via Wikimedia

After earning four gold medals and setting three Olympic Records, he returned home to great parades and great praise, but within months was unable to find work. "I came back to my native country and I couldn't ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted..." quoted Owens. He left college prior to his senior year so that he would be able to provide more support for his family. He turned to be a professional runner. He ran a series of entertainment races against horses, cars, and motorcycles. All the while he was looking for other means of work. He was at one point a partner of a dry cleaning company but nothing seemed to provide him with a reliable income. In 1950, he moved from Cleveland to Chicago and began working with children as a director of the South Side Boys Club. He gave speeches, along with other celebrities such as the Harlem Globetrotters, on the Goodwill Tours in America. In the early 70's he published two books, Blackthink and I Have Changed. Owens was invited to the White House to honor his Olympic accomplishments by President Gerald Ford, receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom, forty years after the fact. Two years later in 1979, President Jimmy Carter awarded him with a Living Legend Award. Jesse Owens died on March 31, 1980 due to lung cancer. Ten years later in 1990, he was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal by President George H.W. Bush.

As the son of a sharecropper and the grandchild of a slave, he had a lot to overcome. He worked hard his entire life to reach greatness. He was much more than a record setting athlete. He avidly opposed segregation and racism, and serves as a blatant example of how America failed to treat all as equals. He persevered through to achieve greatness beyond most people's hopes and dreams. Jesse Owens once said, "Any black who strives to achieve in this country should think in terms of not only himself but also how he can reach down and grab another black child and pull him to the top of the mountain where he is." This quote is reflected in his everyday attitude of his own life. He would never go to the top and leave others behind, for example not taking off to college until he made sure his family would be able do without his financial support. He helped children in the Southside Club, and made every effort to use his accomplishments to better the world for others. That is why Jesse Owens is my hero.

Page created on 1/30/2009 1:28:00 PM

Last edited 9/6/2020 9:37:21 PM

The beliefs, viewpoints and opinions expressed in this hero submission on the website are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs, viewpoints and opinions of The MY HERO Project and its staff.

Related Links

Olympic Games - details the life and times of this hero.
Jesse Owens Foundation - encourages young people by sharing the story of Jesse Owens.

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