James Cleveland Owens was born in Oakville, Alabama, on September 12, 1913, the son of a sharecropper, a farmer who rents land. He was a sickly child, often too frail to help his father and brothers in the fields. The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1921, for better work opportunities. There was little improvement in their life, but the move did enable young Owens to enter public school, where a teacher accidentally wrote down his name as “Jesse” instead of J. C. He carried the name with him for the rest of his life.
A number of universities actively recruited Owens, but he felt that college was only a dream. He felt he could not leave his struggling family and young wife when a paycheck needed to be earned. Owens finally agreed to enter Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, after officials found employment for his father. In addition to his studies and participation in track, Owens worked three jobs to pay his tuition. He experienced racism (the idea that one race is superior to others) while a student at Ohio State, but the incidents merely strengthened his desire to succeed. At the Big Ten Conference track and field championships at the University of Michigan in 1935, he broke three world records and tied another. His 26 foot 8 1/4-inch broad jump set a record that was not broken for twenty-five years.
Owens was a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic team competing in Berlin, Germany.The
African American members of the squad faced the challenges not only of competition but also of Adolph Hitler’s (1889–1945) boasts of Aryan supremacy, or the domination of Hitler’s ideal white, European athletes. Owens won a total of four gold medals at the Olympic games. As a stunned Hitler angrily left the stadium, German athletes embraced Owens and the spectators chanted his name. He returned to a hero’s welcome in America, and was honored with a ticker tape parade in New York City. Within months, however, he was unable to find work to finance his senior year of college. Owens took a job as a playground supervisor, but was soon approached by promoters who wanted him to race against horses and cars. With the money from these exhibitions, he was able to finish school.
In 1937 Owens lent his name to a chain of cleaning shops. They prospered until 1939, when the partners fled, leaving Owens with a bankrupt business and heavy debts. He found employment with the Office of Civilian Defense in Philadelphia (1940–1942) as national director of physical education for African Americans. From 1942 to 1946 he was director of minority employment at Ford Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan. He later became a sales executive for a Chicago sporting goods company.