Jesse Owens: Facts, Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll learn about American athlete Jesse Owens. We'll explore his life and see why he's an important figure in history. We'll place emphasis on his role in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which is what he's best known for.

Who Was Jesse Owens?

Imagine being an ordinary German citizen at the 1936 Summer Olympics held in Berlin. For years, you've been indoctrinated by Nazi propaganda to believe that the Aryan (German) race is superior to all other races. You're confident that the German Olympic athletes will trounce their competitors. After all, you've been taught to believe that Germans are stronger and tougher than anyone else.

To your surprise, a young African-American named Jesse Owens wins four gold medals and, in particular, defeats favored German athlete Luz Long in the long jump competition. In an instant, the myth of ''Aryan Supremacy'' is shattered before your eyes.

So who exactly was Jesse Owens? He was an American track and field athlete who became famous for his performance at the 1936 Summer Games. His success angered many Germans and demonstrated to the world that the German race was not physically superior to all others.

Jesse Owens at the 1936 Summer Olympics.

Early Life

Jesse Owens was born in Oakville, Alabama, in 1913. He was the youngest of 10 children. He was actually named J.C., but after his family moved to Ohio to seek better opportunities, his teachers thought his name was ''Jesse'' due to his strong Southern accent. The name stuck, and we know him today as ''Jesse'' Owens.

While at Fairmount Junior High School in Cleveland, Ohio, Owens developed a passion for running, and he gained national attention for his athleticism while at East Technical High School. Owens went on to attend Ohio State University, where he won many track and field awards. While at OSU, Owens picked up the nickname Buckeye Bullet due to his speed. In 1935, at a Big Ten track meet, Owens set three world records and tied a forth within the span of an hour. This was a remarkable feat and great moment in sports history.

Despite his athletic success, Owens was subject to frequent discrimination. Racism was widespread throughout the 1930s under Jim Crow Laws. These were local laws intended to prevent African-Americans from enjoying equal rights with white Americans. For example, when travelling with other athletes, Owens had to eat at ''Blacks Only'' restaurants.

The 1936 ''Nazi'' Olympics

For the Nazis, the 1936 Summer Olympics was an opportunity to show off the ''glories'' of National Socialism. Remember, Germany had been humiliated by its loss in World War I, and the 1920s had been a difficult time for the country economically. But now that the country was rebuilding under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, German nationalism was swelling. The 1936 Olympics was a chance to showcase a new and improved Germany.

There are actually many conflicting accounts of Owens' experience in the 1936 Olympic Games. What we do know is that he won gold medals in the long jump, 100-meter race, 200-meter race, and the 4 x 100-meter relay race. We also know that his victories shattered the myth of Aryan Supremacy. The competition between Owens and German long jumper Luz Long was intense. Even so, the two formed a close friendship. Long joined the Wehrmacht (German Army) and was killed in action in 1943. Perhaps mindful of his relationship with Long, Owens once remarked: ''Awards become corroded, friends gather no dust.''

You'll often hear the tale that Hitler snubbed Owens during his competition by refusing to shake his hand. There are conflicting reports on this, but it does appear that Hitler left the stadium prior to Owens' medal presentation. However, according to Owens' own account, Hitler gave him a friendly wave before exiting the stadium.

Owens actually felt it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who snubbed him, not Hitler. Months after the Olympic games, Owens commented: ''Hitler didn't snub me - it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram.'' He also said: ''When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn't ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. I wasn't invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either.''

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