White House Dream Team: Jesse Owens

Drawing of Jesse Owens Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens is perhaps the best-remembered Olympic star of all time. He is famous for his world-record success in the 1936 Olympics in the face of racial discrimination.

Jesse, whose full name was James Cleveland Owens, grew up poor and sickly. Born in Alabama, he moved to Cleveland with his family when he was eight. When the teacher asked his name on the first day of school, he answered “J.C.,” which is what he was called. She misunderstood, called him Jesse, and the name stuck.

In order to help his parents pay the bills, Jesse worked in his spare time, delivering groceries, loading trucks and other odd jobs in Cleveland. One day in gym class, the students were asked to race. Everyone noticed Jesse’s speed, and Coach Charlie Riley made a special exception to coach Jesse in the mornings so he could work and help support his family in the afternoons.

By high school, Jesse was a track star. He set the world record in the 100-yard dash as a senior, and many colleges and universities recruited him. He chose Ohio State University, where he continued his amazing career. Jesse’s performance at the 1935 Big Ten Championships was legendary: despite being injured, Jesse set multiple world records.

Jesse's record-breaking performances made him a favorite for the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, Germany in 1936. At that time, Germany was ruled by the powerful dictator Adolph Hitler, whose beliefs in racial supremacy and destructive actions led to World War II. European newspapers insulted Jesse and the other 11 African-Americans competing on America's 66-member Olympic track and field team.

Jesse Owens and other great black and Jewish athletes proved Hitler wrong. Jesse won four gold medals at that Olympics, in the 100-meters sprint, the 200-meter sprint, the long jump and the 400-meter relay, setting two Olympic records and one world record. His long jump record would last for 25 years. The son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave had shown that hard work, talent and determination made champions. The German spectators gave Owens a standing ovation.

When Jesse returned to the United States, he was celebrated with a New York ticker tape parade, and many honors. However, he did not enjoy the endorsements and financial rewards received by some of today's Olympic champions. Jesse spent the next 20 years running races for money, making public appearances, speaking, travelling and opening a public relations firm. He worked very hard to make enough money to provide for his parents, children and other family. Owens, who married his childhood sweetheart Ruth Solomon in 1935, also founded the Jesse Owens Foundation, that continues to be run by his widow Ruth and daughter Marlene. Jesse died in 1980 of cancer in Tucson, Arizona.

Brain Challenge:

  1. What was Jesse's nickname as a child?
  2. Where did he move when he was eight?
  3. Who was the dictator who led Germany in 1936?
  4. How many gold medals did Jesse win at the Olympics?
  5. Name one job Jesse had as a young man.
Share your answers with a parent, teacher or other adult.

Want to learn more?
Visit your school or public library to learn more about these fascinating Americans.

September 12, 1913 in Oakville, Alabama

March 31, 1980 in Tucson, Arizona

To provide for his family

Cleveland East Technical High School, Ohio State University

Helping to prove that all people are equal, regardless of color

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