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August 1936: American athlete Jesse Owens (1913 - 1980) the greatest sprinter of his generation. At the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin he won 4 gold medals. In 1976 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Happy Black History Month! This is the sixth blog of a series of blogs called “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know”. This series will be a collection of my research into little-known Black Americans who have made history in one way or another (or multiple ways!).

The focus of today’s blog is Jesse Owens, the American track and field star nicknamed”The Buckeye Bullet”. In the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, he won four gold medals and broke two world records.

This is his story.

J.C. Turns Into Jesse

According to biography.com, Jesse Owens was born James Cleveland “J.C.” Owens in 1913 in Oakville, Alabama. His family lived on a sharecropper’s farm so very early on, they expected Owens to pick cotton in order to help the family. He worked hard despite suffering regularly from chronic bronchial congestion and pneumonia. At nine years old, his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio where Owens would face stricter teachers and a much bigger school. “J.C.” soon became Jesse when his school instructor misunderstood his thick Alabama accent and gave him the name he’d use for the rest of his life.

Becoming “The Buckeye Bullet”

Owens met his future wife, Minnie Ruth Soloman, in Cleveland when she was 13 and he was 15. It was also in Cleveland that his incredible athleticism and talent shone through. He broke several records through track and field, including the 100 and 200-yard dashes along with the long jump. These triumphs began to garner him national attention.

Clinching Wins At The 1935 Ben Ten Championships

Soon after, he attended Ohio State University, where he continued to succeed and break several world records. These included the 220-yard dash, the 220-yard low hurdles, and setting the long jump to 26-8 ¼, which would stand as the record for 25 years after. He went on to win four events at the NCAA Championships, two events at the AAU Championships, and three more at the Olympic trials. Out of the 42 events Owens entered in 1935, he won every single one of them.

1936 Berlin Olympic Games

By the age of 23, Owens felt prepared to take on the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Expecting the Olympics to showcase Aryan supremacy, Adolf Hitler berated the United States for allowing Black athletes to represent them. When Jesse Owens secured four gold medals for the United States and broke two Olympic world records, Hitler stormed out of the arena. Still, Owens went down in history as receiving gold medals for the 100 meter, the long jump, the 200 meter, and the 400-meter relay.

After the Olympics

However, despite the success he brought the United States, Owens faced more racism on returning home. When usually U.S. winners of the Olympic Games would be congratulated home by the president, Franklin D. Roosevelt did not show. He would not be congratulated by the White House until 1976 when Gerald Ford honored Owens with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. After the Olympics, Owens retired from amateur athletics. Eventually, he started a marketing company that would allow him to travel and speak to businesses. As a lifelong smoker, Owens passed of lung cancer in 1980. Read more about Jesse Owens here.

Read another article from the “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know” blog series here.