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Who is Jesse Owens?

By Bronwyn Harris
Updated May 23, 2024
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Jesse Owens was born James Cleveland Owens in 1913, on a small farm in Oakville, Alabama. His grandparents had been slaves and his parents were sharecroppers. They lived in a small shack that was not insulated, but frigid in the winters and extremely hot in the summers.

Jesse Owens was not very healthy, and often had pneumonia, or what his family called the "devil's cold." They had no money for medication or doctors, so his parents resorted to methods like wrapping him in blankets in front of the fire, to "break" the fever, and cutting out a lump that had appeared on Owens' leg with a hot kitchen knife.

When Jesse Owens was nine years old, his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. His teacher mistook his initials, J.C. as the name "Jesse" and he began to be known as "Jesse Owens." The whole family worked to earn money, even the children.

At fourteen, Jesse Owens began junior high school. The track coach, Charles Riley, saw his potential and asked Owens to train for the track team. He had to train in the mornings, as he was working every day after school, to help his family. Coach Riley inspired Jesse Owens to train for the future and be the best runner he could possibly be.

In junior high and high school, Owens gained a reputation as a graceful and lightning-fast runner. He began to be called a "floating wonder," and started breaking records in the long jump; called the broad jump at the time, the high jump, and the 220-yard dash.

Attending Ohio State University, Jesse Owens joined the track team. At the Big Ten Championship meet in 1935, he set an astounding three world records, tying a fourth, in under an hour. Soon after, he married Minnie Solomon, and later had three daughters.

Jesse Owens qualified for the United States Track and Field Team at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany, when Hitler was in power. Owens won four gold medals, tied the Olympic record for the 100-meter race, was part of the record-setting 400-meter relay team, set an Olympic record for the long jump, and set a world record of 20.7 seconds for the 200-meter race.

An iconic photograph was taken of Jesse Owens and Lutz Long, the German long jumper who won the silver medal, shaking hands. This picture of a white German and a black American has been used to demonstrate how sports overcame, for a moment, the racial hate and prejudice in 1936 Nazi Germany.

When Jesse Owens returned to the United States, although he was enough of a hero to be at the head of a ticker-tape parade for the Olympic team, he was still not able to ride in the front of the bus or go into the same restaurants as white Americans. He had to work hard to make a living in any way possible: working as a playground director, appearing on radio programs, making speeches, and operating a dry cleaning company. He continued running in exhibition races to earn money as well. He said that he felt like a spectacle but that "it was an honest living. I had to eat."

Jesse Owens was popular with audiences, who enjoyed listening to his speeches. He wrote an autobiography, as well as two books: Blackthink: My Life as Black Man and White Man and I Have Changed, he discussed issues facing black Americans. His thinking evolved between the two books, changing from blaming "the Negro" for his own failure to becoming more aware of American prejudice and showing understanding for those who were fighting for racial equality.

Known for many years as "The World's Fastest Human," he won many awards, including the Associated Press' all time greatest track-and-field award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Living Legends Award. He died in 1980 of lung cancer, but his inspiration as a poor sharecropper's son to a world record-setting athlete lives on.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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