- Faith & Family
There are some names in Black history that will always be remembered for paving the way for today’s talented athletes: Joe Louis, Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson are just a few examples. But no star shined brighter than Jesse Owen [1913-1980], the 22-year-old son of a sharecropper who gained international acclaim and shocked the world at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. German Chancellor Adolf Hitler believed the Games were the perfect opportunity to prove the superiority of Aryan athletes. Owens spoiled the party.
He would win four gold medals — the first Black to ever accomplish that feat —but not without first overcoming great adversity. Born in poverty in Oakville, Alabama and raised in segregated Cleveland, Ohio, where he first gained national attention, he chose to attend Ohio State University. Ironically, while he set three world records in the 1935 Big Ten track championship, he was not allowed to live on campus because he was Black.
This week, PBS brings his story of stunning triumph and tragedy to television in the latest contribution of their American Experience series (it is also on DVD). The show is produced and directed by Laurens Grant and produced and written by Stanley Nelson —the team that took the Emmy Award for “Freedom Riders.”
Owens faces tough times after Olympics wins
Owens was stripped of his amateur athletic standing shortly after his Olympics victory because he chose to return home to be with his wife rather than to follow orders and participate in a European fundraising tour for the Amateur Athletic Union. When he arrived in New York, he was unable to find lodging — no one would allow a Black man to stay in their hotel. Finally, he persuaded one owner to let him and his wife stay, but they had to use the service entrance.
Owens showed that he could beat any man when on the field. But once he removed his track shoes, he forever reminded that the only thing America cared about was the color of his skin. Sadly, Owens turned to everything from running against horses to operating a dry cleaning business in order to provide for his family.
“Jesse Owens was able to carve out his own path and sustain himself, his family and his legacy during very troubling and limited times for Black men,” Grant said. “There were no endorsement deals for Black athlete. It’s incredible that he was able to achieve, survive and remain positive through it all.”
What does it feel like to be a Black man in America? Owens’s tale will answer that question. On one day he is accepting the Gold Medal to the roar of the crowd. The next, he is pushed to the margins as a nation plagued by prejudice turns its back on him.
That is his story —it is our story to remember.
By D. Kevin McNeir