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“Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry. His personal triumphs as a world-class athlete and record holder were the prelude to a career devoted to helping others. His work with young athletes, as an unofficial ambassador overseas, and a spokesman for freedom are a rich legacy to his fellow Americans”.
-President Jimmy Carter
Unlike most historical events throughout the centuries, which typically reach the apex of their importance in the closest proximity to when they took place, what Jesse Owens accomplished at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin would grow in importance almost exponentially with the passage of time. It’s not that it wasn’t appreciated when it captivated the world in that summer of 1936, but merely that its import was markedly greater than that a decade later when Adolph Hitler had fully matriculated from being an ominously scary dictator to the instigator of unfathomable genocide. With the passage of another half-century, Owens’ accomplishment is further magnified by its linkage to the Civil Rights Movement, the unrelenting character he exemplified if the face of oppression, and a life dedicated to helping others.
The youngest of 10 children when he was born on September 12, 1913, in Oakville, Alabama, J.C., as he was called, was 9 years old when the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1922, yet another family seeking a better life and greater opportunities in what was known as The Great Migration as 1.5 million African Americans left Jim Crow and the segregated South behind. Faced with the unrelenting harshness of poverty, he worked numerous jobs growing up, all the while making time to nurture his obvious athletic gifts. His true greatness as an athlete began to emerge at East Technical High School in Cleveland, where he quickly rose to national prominence, equaling the world record in the 100-yard dash (9.4 seconds) and long jumping 24 feet 9 ½ inches at the 1933 National High School Championships in Chicago.
In college at Ohio State, despite suffering the indignities that would befall black athletes competing in intercollegiate sports in the 1930’s, Jesse Owens won a record eight NCAA individual championships, four each in 1935 and 1936, quickly establishing himself as the greatest track star of his era. In a landmark feat of unprecedented dominance, he set three world records and tied a fourth at a Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1935, one of those a long jump record that would survive for 25 years, an almost unheard of tenure for any new milestone in track.
With his college laurels in tow and an international reputation in track already in hand, Owens boarded an ocean liner for the voyage to Germany in the summer of 1936 to compete in an Olympics that was already besieged by controversy. With the European Continent convinced of an impending terror from Chancellor Hitler and a terrifying Third Reich there was a genuine sentiment that the United States must boycott the 1936 Games. Many US officials opposed contributing to what they believed would be a grotesque effort by Hitler to propagandize the Games in promoting his notion of Aryan supremacy and showcasing a resurgent Nazi Germany.
Into that maelstrom strode Owens, headlining a group of other world-class black track stars. Demonstrating profound courage and resolve, Owens decimated Hitler’s plans with one of the greatest individual athletic feats in the history of sports. In the space of a week’s time he captured four gold medals (the 100 meter, the long jump, the 200 meter and the 400-meter relay), and broke two Olympic records along the way. Owens record for the world broad jump would last 25 years until being broken by Olympian Irvin Roberson in 1960. After Owens won the 100-meter event, a furious Hitler stormed out of the stadium, though some reports indicate that Hitler later congratulated the athlete on his success. A remarkably even-keeled and magnanimous human being, Owens never trumpeted his success in the face of his German host. Just as sure as he knew fascism was evil, he also knew his own country, one that trumpeted freedom and liberty around the world, practiced something far less than that at home.
While Owens helped the U.S. triumph at the games, his return home was not met with the kind of fanfare one might expect. President Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to meet with Owens and congratulate him, as was typical for champions. The athlete wouldn't be properly recognized until 1976, when President Gerald Ford awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The mild-mannered Owens seemed not the least bit surprised by his home country's hypocrisy. "When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn't ride in the front of the bus," he said. "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."
Following the Olympics, Owens desire to return home rather than embark on a European fundraising tour resulted in him being stripped of his amateur athletic standing. Banned from competing in any sanctioned sporting event in the U.S., the athlete returned to a country with its own racial divide. Owens gamely tried anything and everything to provide for his family, but struggled financially. In the late 1930’s Owens was befriended by the legendary dancer and movie star Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Robinson and his agent helped Owens find work in the entertainment field in the years following his Olympic triumph and even provided the track star with “walking around money” at various times. The parallels between the two cultural icons were enormous, as “Bojangles” had with almost agonizing dexterity crossed between the two worlds of black and white, hamstrung and unfairly relegated to what might be regarded as demeaning “roles” despite being blessed with talents unmatched or unchallenged. Restricted to the steamy world of black vaudeville stages and nightclubs, he would not dance before white audiences till after the age of 50, an almost incomprehensible obstacle to a dancer of his vitality and energy. Among the opportunities Robinson and his manager Marty Forkins engineered for Jesse Owens was the formation of a band fronted by Owens in a revue that was booked all over the country. As a token of gratitude and friendship, as documented in the biography “Mr. Bojangles” by author N.R. Mitgang, Owens presented Robinson with his original 1936 Gold Medal from Berlin. Decades later, in a 1960 appearance on the television show “This Is Your Life”, Owens reflected emotionally on the loss of his great friend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson who passed away in 1949.
This remarkable medal, though unidentifiable to a specific event, is the only documented example among the four originals awarded to Owens in Berlin Germany. No verifiable record of the other three original medals is known, though Owens was later issued a replacement set that was featured as part of the 1976 Freedom Train exhibit, and now resides at Ohio Sate University as part of their Jesse Owens exhibit. This medal has descended in the estate of Bill Robinson’s late widow Elaine Plaines-Robinson. Complete documentation of provenance can be viewed online.
It leaves one nearly speechless to behold this medal, having intersected the lives of two famous figures, and surviving as one of the world’s most poignant symbols of triumph. Jesse Owens, the son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave achieved what no Olympian before him had accomplished. His stunning performance during the 1936 Olympic games not only discredited heinous claims of the dictator, Adolph Hitler, it also affirmed that individual excellence rather than race or national origin, distinguishes one man or woman from another. The Olympics were only the starting block for Jesse Owens ultimate victory. Through his living example he held out hope to millions of young people. Throughout his life, he worked with youths, sharing of himself and the little material wealth that he had. He was as much the champion on the playground in the poorest neighborhoods as he was on the oval of the Olympic games. Jesse Owens is a true legend for his and all-time.