Write Again … Alabama to Berlin

Published 6:55 pm Friday, January 11, 2019

James Cleveland Owens.

Chances are you’ve never heard of him.

The last of 10 children of Henry and Mary Emma Owens, born in 1913, his earliest years were spent in rural Alabama.

Henry Owens struggled to eke out a living, to provide for his family, as a sharecropper. He was the son of former slaves. The Owenses lived in virtual poverty, in a three-room cabin (shack), as so many black people did at that time, and in that place. Racial discrimination was the norm. Between 1882-1902, there were more than 100 lynchings each year in the United States, the vast majority in the South.

At the urging, insistence of some in the family — Henry was against it — the Owens family moved to Ohio, to seek a better life. There was then, and for years to come, an outward migration of black people from the South.

While just a pre-teen lad, James Cleveland Owens attracted the attention of his gym teacher in elementary school, Charles Riley, a white man.

Riley observed and remained interested in the boy’s young life, believing that he was very, very special. Watching him run and jump convinced Riley that great things were ahead for Owens.

Riley, earlier, had asked the boy his name, and the then shy student told him. Riley evidently misunderstood, and called him Jesse. And Jesse it became, for the black kid from Alabama was not about to correct a white man.

From that day on he was Jesse Owens. And the achievements that lay ahead for Jesse became the stuff of a legend.

Even when Jesse entered high school, Charles Riley continued offering his expertise as an assistant coach for the school’s track team.

Riley became, truly, a second father to Jesse, and was a part of his life for years.

As a sprinter and broad jumper (it was years later that it came to be called the long jump), Owens broke world records while in high school.

Then, in a Big Ten meet at Michigan, Jesse Owens tied one world record and broke three others, representing Ohio State. This was in 1935. Charles Riley had driven from Cleveland to Ann Arbor to watch his protege. He was not disappointed.

Ohio State’s head track and field coach, Larry Snyder, joined Charles Riley as the most important men in Jesse’s life. He listened to, and loved, both of these special men.

The rest of the Jesse Owens story is now a part of our nation’s history, and, if not now, was for decades known by just about all Americans, and by people around the world.

His performance at the 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin, will quite probably never be equaled again.

And this was during an era in our country when only baseball, boxing and horse racing drew larger audiences. Track & Field was much, much more than just a niche sport.

One of the great issues of the time was whether or not the United States should even participate in these Olympic Games in Berlin. Bitter arguments took place between and among the various bodies that had ties to the Olympic enterprise in our country. Competing was definitely not a “given” for months leading up to the tryouts. That is a story unto itself. An important one.

Jesse Owens’ performance at the actual games was the major story, and was told around the world. As a sprinter and broad jumper, he was the very best in the world, and he proved it in Berlin, the heart of the evil Nazi empire. That is definitely another story. A major one.

In the ’80s and ’90s, when world class track and field meets were held at Duke — USA vs Russia, USA vs Pan Africa, plus two NCAA championships ( I attended them all) — I happened to be up on the hard surface at the top of the stadium, at one of these meets, when I saw a golf cart coming my way. In it was the man driving, and an older gentleman named Jesse Owens.

In person. The man himself.

America’s most celebrated track and field performer of all time.

James Cleveland Owens.

Forever known to the world as Jesse Owens.