Born James Cleveland Owens in Alabama in 1913, he moved with his parents and nine siblings to Cleveland, Ohio when he was eight years old. When Owens began school in Cleveland, a move his father initiated in the hopes of finding a more financially stable life, Owens went by J.C., but his new teacher mistook his name for "Jesse," a name stuck with him for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, the Owens were unable to find financial security, and Owens had to work many jobs during his youth to help support the family.
Owens' great speed was first noticed by his junior high track coach Charles Riley. Although Owens was not able to attend after-school practices, Riley understood Owens' potential and coached him every day before school. Owens' determination led him to tying the world record in the 100-yard dash twice while in high school. He was offered scholarships from colleges from across the nation but chose to attend Ohio State University. While in college, Owens was forced to eat, sleep and live in buildings separate from his white peers. He was eventually not even given a scholarship because of his color and paid for school by working part-time jobs.
Owens achieved his most renowned records while in college, however. In a 70-minute period on May 25, 1935, Owens set three and tied one world record at the Big Ten Conference Championships, a feat that had never been accomplished before. The next year, while running in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Owens won four gold medals. He also set four Olympic records (one for each race in which he ran) and tied and set two world records. Adolf Hitler's campaign to prove to the world the superiority of the Aryan race was invalidated single-handedly by Owens, as was the previous American record for the number of track and field records broken in a single Olympics. "It dawned on me with blinding brightness. I realized I had jumped into another rare kind of stratosphere - one that only a handful of people in every generation are lucky enough to know," said Owens immediately after the Olympics.
Sadly, upon returning home, Owens continued to experience prejudice. "After I came home from the 1936 Olympics with my four medals, it became increasingly apparent that everyone was going to slap me on the back, want to shake my hand or have me up to their suite, but no one was going to offer me a job," he said.
Owens later quit college his senior year to help support his family. He would race against people, horses and motorcycles for money, and sometimes, he was offered the opportunity to lecture. With the discovery of his innate public-speaking skills, Owens decided to open a public relations firm. He went on to sponsor numerous youth sports programs in underprivileged neighborhoods.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford awarded Owens the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that can be given to an American civilian.
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