|Born||in Oakville, Alabama, USA|
|Died||in Phoenix, Arizona, USA (lung cancer)|
|Birth Name||James Cleveland Owens|
|Height||5' 10" (1.78 m)|
Mini Bio (1)
Jesse Owens, arguably the most popular American track and field star in history, was -- along with his contemporary, world's heavyweight champion Joe Louis -- one of the first African Americans to change white society's perception of both black athletes and, more importantly, people of color. The future Olympic champion was born James Cleveland Owens on September 12, 1913 in Oakville, Alabama, the youngest of 10 children born to sharecroppers Henry and Emma Owens. When young "J.C." as he was called was eight years old, his parents decided to abandon their small hometown and flee the sharecropper's life of peonage (legal in the U.S. until a 1938 Supreme Court decision outlawed it) by moving north to Cleveland, Ohio to find a better way of life, far away from the Jim Crow segregated south. J.C. was enrolled in a public school, and on his first day of school, the teacher heard his name as "Jesse", which was what he would be known as instead of J.C. for the rest of his life.
Prosperity did not come with the move to Cleveland as southern blacks were to find that racism was prevalent up north too, and Owens had to work while attending school to help support his family. Because he had to work after school, his high school track coach would meet him in the mornings to train him, due to his great talent. He was recruited by many colleges, but decided to go to the University of Ohio, but without a scholarship, he had to again work his way through school. In addition, he had to face discrimination daily on campus and during the travels to track meets, as America was still in the throes of legal segregation.
Owens married his high school sweetheart, Ruth Solomon, in 1935, and they eventually had three daughters together. At the Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor on May 25, 1935, Owens set three world records and tied a fourth in less than an hour. Owens tied the record in the 100-yard dash at 9.4 seconds, and set records in the broad jump (26 feet 8 1/4 inches), the 220-yard dash (20.3 seconds) and the 220-yard low hurdles (22.6 seconds). The stage was set for Berlin.
The Berlin Olympics of 1936 were held in Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany, and Hitler's Nazi Party used the event as a soapbox to promulgate the theory of "Aryan" racial superiority. Hitler was spectacularly shown up by Jesse Owens and other African American athletes, members of a so-called "inferior" race. Despite the hostile atmosphere, Owens triumphed in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash and the broad jump. He replaced a Jewish-American member of the 400-meter relay team that went on to win the Gold Medal. In three of his events, Owens -- who became the first American in the history of track and field to win four gold medals in a single Olympics, a feat not duplicated until 1984, when Carl Lewis won gold medals in the same events at the Warsaw Pact nations-free 1984 Summer Olympics) -- established Olympic records. Although Hitler did not shake his hand, by the end of the games, the German fans cheered for him. In fact, in his 1970 autobiography "The Jesse Owens Story", Owens claimed that the Fuhrer himself waved to him.
Owens' life after the Olympics was marred by the lack of opportunities provided to all African Americans, not just athletes. Although he came back to a ticker-tape parade held in in his honor by the City of New York, Owens had to ride the freight elevator to attend a reception for him at the posh Waldorf-Astoria hotel. In his autobiography, Owens remembered, "When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, 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. I wasn't invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either."
Like many African Americans in the first half of the 20th Century, Owens was a Republican. The Democratic Party traditionally counted on the votes of the "Solid South", politicians who were anti-black and pro-segregation, while the Party of Lincoln traditionally was the party of civil rights legislation, which died in committee under long-serving Southern Democratic pols in Congress. It was not until the 1960 Presidential election that a majority of African Americans voted for the Democratic candidate rather than the Republican. Thus, it is not surprising that Owens endorsed Republican Presidential candidate 'Alf Landon' over incumbent President 'Franklin D. Roosevelt' in 1936, who would lose, crushed under the massive landslide racked up by FDR, who began to form a "New Deal coalition" that would embrace African Americans.
After the Olympics, Owens had difficulty making a living and turned to sports promotion, essentially turning himself into an entertainer. Though boxing was integrated, the number of African American contenders was regulated as to not alienate white fans, and the pro sports of baseball, football and basketball were segregated. Black athletes, even those as popular as Owens, did not begin winning serious promotional contracts until the 1970s.
To make an income, Owens engaged in many exhibitions, such as running against race horses before Negro League professional baseball games. He moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he became a radio disc-jockey. He was extremely well-liked, and became an in-demand public speaker. Owen's popularity grew with the time, as he was seen after the war as the man who showed up Hitler and his discredited policies of racial superiority, thus becoming an important public figure in a society that, beginning with the Supreme Court decision desegregating schools (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954), was facing the painful process of overcoming its own racial hatreds and sordid past.
Owens started his own public relations firm, and traveled around the country speaking on behalf of corporations and for US Olympic Committee. His speeches stressed the importance of religion, hard work and loyalty. He also sponsored and participated in youth sports programs in inner-city neighborhoods. In 1976, President Gerald Ford bestowed the Medal of Freedom on Jesse Owens, the highest civilian honor the United States government can award.
Jesse Owens, one of the more remarkable Americans to grace the world stage, died on March 31, 1980 in Phoenix, Arizona from complications of lung cancer, likely caused by his pack-a-day cigarette smoking habit. He was buried in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois. Owens was 66 years old. His Owens's memory is kept alive by his widow Ruth and his daughter Marlene, who operate the Jesse Owens Foundation, which provides financial assistance and support to deserving young people s from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Honors continued to accrue to Owens, even after death, testament to his greatness as a symbol of overcoming adversity. In 1984, a street in Berlin was named after him, and a school was renamed Jesse Owens Realschule/Oberschule (Secondary School). On March 28, 1990, Owens was posthumously awarded a Congressional Gold Medal, which was presented to his family by President 'George H. W. Bush'.
- IMDb Mini Biography By: Jon C. Hopwood
|Ruth Solomon||(10 August 1935 - 31 March 1980) ( his death) ( 3 children)|