James Cleveland Owens was born on September 12, 1913 in Oakville, Alabama. James was the youngest of ten children born to Henry and Emma Owens. His family called him “J.C.” for short.
The Owens family were sharecroppers. But even though J.C. had plenty of work to do on the family farm, he was able to go to school to learn how to at least read and write.
J.C.’s family moved to Cleveland, Ohio in search of a better life when he was eight years old.
It was there, on the first day of school, that J.C. got his nickname. His teacher misunderstood his name. She thought he said, “Jesse”, instead of “J.C.”, and thereafter, everyone just called him “Jesse.”
One advantage in attending school at Cleveland East Technical High School was that it was larger than Jesse’s one room school in Oakville. It was there, in gym class one day, that Jesse – and the coach- discovered he could run. The coach encouraged the young man to join the school’s track team. Jesse Owens soon found himself running the hundred yard dash. He ran the two hundred and twenty yard dash too, and he also performed the high jump and the long jump.
And run Jesse did. He ran the hundred yard dash in 9.4 seconds and set the world high school record.
From that accomplishment, came many offers from colleges when he graduated. Jesse finally decided to attend Ohio State University so he could be close to his family. No scholarships were bestowed upon him, so Jesse had to work to pay for his education. Being that he was an Afro-American, and discrimination was widely practiced, Jesse Owens wasn’t allowed to live on the campus. Instead, he had to find room and board elsewhere, along with the rest of the Afro-American athletes.
Unfortunately, the discrimination didn’t end there. When the track team traveled, Jesse had to find “Blacks Only” establishments to eat and sleep at. But all the discrimination in the world couldn’t crush Jesse Owens’ spirit. At a track meet in 1935, the young runner managed to set three world records and tie a fourth. Jesse Owens set a new world record in the broad jump by making it twenty-six feet and eight and a quarter inches. He also sprinted the two hundred and twenty yard dash in 20.3 seconds, and set a new world record. And, when he ran the two hundred and twenty yard low hurdles, Jesse did it in 22.6 seconds and again managed to set another world record.
In the following year, Jesse became a contestant in the Olympics. Again, he carried the day when he he won the hundred meter dash, the two hundred meter dash, and the broad jump. He also
was part of a relay team that won the four hundred meter race and the gold medal. Jesse Owens finished the Olympics that year by winning a total of four gold medals.
Still, money and fame would elude Jesse Owens simply because he was an Afro-American. Money was still tight for his family, so he quit college so he could work and help support them.
Jesse was hired to run in special events. Plus, despite the hardships he had faced, he became a public speaker who emphasized the need for religion, hard work, and perseverance in order to succeed in life.
In honor of his achievements, President Ford awarded Jesse Owens the Medal of Freedom in 1976.
And on March 31, 1980, Jesse Owens, passed away in Tucson, Arizona.