OWENS, JESSE - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
OWENS, JESSE (James Cleveland) (12 September 1913-31 March 1980), was a world record setting track-and-field athlete during the 1930s. In 1950 sportswriters voted him as the world's top track star of the century. Born on a tenant farm in Oakville, Alabama, to Henry and Emma Alexander Owens, Jesse migrated with his family to Cleveland in 1922. Owens's athletic talent was first noted at Fairmount Junior High School by his track coach, Charles Riley. Jesse set a new junior high school record when he ran the 100-yard dash in 11 seconds flat. While at Fairmount, he also set records in the high jump and the long jump. As a high school senior at EAST TECHNICAL HIGH SCHOOL, Owens equaled the world record of 9.4 seconds in the 100-yard dash. During his senior year at East Tech, he was elected president of the senior class and captain of the track team. Before enrolling in the Ohio State University in 1933, Owens set a new world record in the 220-yard dash and tied the world record in the 100-yard dash at the National Championship in Chicago. While competing at the Big Ten Conference Championship in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on May 25, 1935, Owens broke three world records and tied a fourth in an hour, the only athlete to establish multiple new track-and-field world records on the same day. His long-jump record of 26 feet, 8 1/4 inches stood for 25 years. The Cleveland track star gained his greatest fame at the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936, where he won four gold medals. In the 100- and 200-meter sprints, he set records of 10.3 and 20.7 seconds respectively. In the long jump, he set an Olympic record of 26 feet, 5 1/4 inches. Owens then joined Ralph Metcalfe, Floyd Draper, and Frank Wykoff to set a new world record of 39.8 seconds in the 400-meter relay.
Ineligible to continue competing for the Ohio State University due to his poor academic standing, Owens signed with Consolidated Radio Artists as a professional entertainer in 1937, tap dancing with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. After working briefly for Cleveland's Parks and Recreation Department, he started a dry-cleaning business in 1938 but was forced to file for personal bankruptcy in 1939. During WORLD WAR II, the U.S. Office of Civilian Defense appointed Owens as director of a national fitness program for African Americans in 1942. He traveled around the nation holding fitness clinics and promoting the war effort. In 1943, Owens joined the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan, as assistant personnel director for African American workers. He was put in charge of hiring and firing employees as well as settling disputes between workers and management. He rose to the position of personnel director, but lost his job at the end of the war. When a sporting goods store he opened in Detroit failed, Owens went on the road to make money. He raced horses and toured with the Harlem Globetrotters and the Cincinnati Crescents, a baseball team. Owens and his family moved to Chicago in 1949. He opened a, public relations agency and held executive positions with the Mutual of Omaha Insurance Corporation, the Illinois Athletic Commission, and the South Side Boys Club. In 1953, the governor of Illinois, William G. Stratton, appointed Owens as secretary of the Illinois Youth Commission, which oversaw recreational and educational programs for the state's youngsters. President Dwight D. Eisenhower enlisted Owens as a goodwill ambassador in 1955 and sent the world-renown track star to India, the Philippines, and Malaya to promote physical exercise as well as tout the cause of American freedom and economic opportunity in the developing world. He would continue his goodwill tours in the 1960s and 1970s. Although he lost his patronage job with the Illinois Youth Commission in 1960, Owens continued his product endorsement work for such corporations as Quaker Oats, Sears and Roebuck, and Johnson & Johnson.
In 1965, Atlantic Richfield Company sponsored the first ARCO/Jesse Owens Games, an annual track meet for children aged ten to fifteen. The Ohio State University awarded Owens an honorary doctorate of athletic arts in 1972 and the U.S. Olympic Committee appointed him to its board of directors the following year. Two years after his induction into the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974, Owens received the Presidential Medal of Honor from President Gerald Ford. A lifetime smoker, Owens was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1979 and passed away in his home in Tucson, Arizona, in 1980. The Ohio State University dedicated the Jesse Owens Memorial Plaza outside the Ohio Stadium in 1984. The Jesse Owens Memorial Park and Museum opened in his hometown of Oakville, Alabama, in 1996. Owens married Minnie Ruth Solomon in 1932 and they had three daughters together, Gloria, Marlene, and Beverly.
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