Jesse Owens, Olympic Athlete

Learn more about the life of track and field star Jesse Owens.
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Track and Field Athlete and Olympic Star
Birthplace: Oakville, AL

James Cleveland Owens was born in 1913 in Alabama. His parents, Emma and Henry Owens, were sharecroppers. When J.C. was eight, his parents decided to move the family north to Cleveland, OH, where he was nicknamed Jesse. At Cleveland East Technical High School, Jesse became a track star. During his senior year, he tied the world record in the 100-yard dash with a time of 9.4 seconds.

Jesse was recruited by Ohio State University. At that time, the United States was segregated and when he traveled with the track team, Jesse had to stay in "blacks only" hotels and ate in "blacks-only" restaurants.

Jesse competed at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany, where he won the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash and the broad (long) jump. He was also a key member of the 400-meter relay team that won the gold medal. Jesse was the first American track and field Olympian to win four gold medals in one day. Jesse set three world records and tied a fourth. When he returned to the U.S. he was greeted by a ticker-tape parade.

Jesse ran professionally until 1948; he set seven world records during his career. After he retired, Jesse went into the public relations industry. Owens believed that athletic competition could help solve racial and political problems, and he sponsored youth sports programs all over the United States. In 1976, President Ford awarded him the Medal of Freedom.

On March 31, 1980, Jesse Owens died at the age of 66 from complications due to cancer.

Related Resources

Black History MonthEncyclopedia of Prominent African Americans.