Know Ohio: Jesse Owens

February is Black History Month and a few weeks ago Know Ohio correspondent Mary Fecteau told you about the Underground Railroad. Well, this week, she’s going to skip ahead a couple hundred years to bring you the story of one of Ohio’s most famous African American athletes – and, no, I’m not talking about LeBron. 

Today, some of our favorite athletes are African American, but back in the 1930’s, sports were often segregated, and black athletes were not given the same support as their white counterparts. This is the world famous Olympian Jesse Owens grew up in.

 After moving to Ohio with his family as a young boy, Jesse discovered his passion for running in junior high, and by high school he was nearly breaking records. As a student at Cleveland’s East Tech, he matched the world record, running 100 meters in just 9.4 seconds.

And he only got better in college. At Ohio State he was known as Buckeye Bullet – and for good reason – not only did he win a record number of NCAA Championships, but he set three world records in a single day. But, in the 1930’s, even his status on the track did not entitle him to equal treatment off of it. As a black student at Ohio State, Jesse was forced to live off campus with other African American athletes, and never received a scholarship for his efforts.

Jesse responded to this racism with amazing athletic success – and it reached its peak at the 1936 Olympic games. Held in Berlin during Nazi rule, German chancellor Adolf Hitler was expecting domination by German athletes, and planned to use the games to promote his concept of German racial superiority. But, to Hitler’s chagrin, it was Owens who dominated – winning four gold medals and breaking a world record.

Today, memorials to Jesse can be found all around the Buckeye State – from Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium for track and field competitions at Ohio State, to the Jesse Owens statue that sits in downtown Cleveland. Jesse Owens' memory serves as a reminder that the best way to overcome prejudice is to outrun it.

Instructional Links

Encyclopedia Article: World Book Student, Jesse Owens

Teacher's Resources & Video: American Experience, Jesse Owens

Website: Jesse Owens, Olympic Legend

Website Article: Jesse Owens Memorial Park, Bio

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