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One of the most enduring figures of the Olympics was Jesse Owens, the outstanding athlete who won many track and field awards and trophies; he is remembered for his impact on society and all around the world during his time. His time helping to bring down the Nazi’s theories of Aryan Supremacy and his identity of being a star African American athlete is what prevailed him to be bigger than life in the city and state that helped race him growing up after the migration.
Growing up in the early 1900s wasn’t easy for many people, especially the Cleveland man himself, Jesse Owens. Owens is well known for his athletic ability and his contributions to the era he was living a part of. It all started for him when he came to Cleveland at the age of eight years old. During the 1910s and the 20s, hundreds of thousands of African Americans moved from the South to the North in what came to be known as the Great Migration. During this, in 1922, Jesse and his family migrated from Alabama to Cleveland to start fresh. Growing up early on for Jesse Owens hadn’t turned out to be what was expected at first; Jesse had to take jobs after school, and going from job to job would be hectic at moments in his life. Jesse Owens excelled at track and field events growing up that would make a numerous impact on society, the era in which he lived, and most importantly himself.
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The Great Migration of African Americans out of the South began around the 20th century and lasted through the 60s. During this time, it was recorded that more than six million blacks moved from the rural South to the North, Midwest, and West. The center of the African American community in Cleveland during this era was the Old Haymarket district on Central Avenue for most of the new settlers; Cleveland’s population grew 60% between 1910 and 103, rising to 900,429. The majority of the African-Americans to come here as part of the migration chose to live in the Cedar-Central neighborhood.
Cleveland, at the time, became the destination for people from the southern region seeking a better life than what the south preferred, most importantly including employment.
Cleveland’s African American population had soared following the Great Migration, “Hardening racism, bolstered by discriminatory practices by landlords, real estate brokers, and banks, largely confined African Americans in Cleveland” ( The Cleveland Historical Team, 2018).
During his time during the migration, Jesse found his true passion for running. “Throughout his life, Owens attributed the success of his athletic career to the encouragement of Charles Riley, his junior year high school coach” ( Thomas, 2017). Owens had made an enormous jump from his peers while attending East Technical High School in the heart of Cleveland, Ohio. He saw the opportunity with this and kept moving forward; this helped his life take the next step where athletes at this time in Ohio were at a minimum. Star athletes in Cleveland meant that you really broke through with the adversity in which what really was going on at the time in the world, as Cleveland didn’t have well-known athletes coming out of the city besides Owens, who had broken the norm of the city and state as a whole. Jesse Owens proved that no matter what the situation or time that he had been dealing with, it proved to be nothing to him and made his athletics the light to his name. “Even in the years of World War II in America, important challenges were made from a variety of perspectives against the status quo of racial discrimination among African Americans” (Spivey, 1983); this had been another obstacle that Owens had to fight through and was in the midst of dealing with on a daily basis during his time.
Discrimination was a huge problem at the time, and this later affected Jesse Owens at the collegiate level. Where he took his talents to The Ohio State University, where, as crazy as it sounds, he was not provided with a scholarship, a privilege that only white people of his caliber were guaranteed. Jesse Owens had proved to be a collegiate athlete, as he won a record of 8 individual championships and had won 4 gold medals. But during that time, Jesse Owens had to deal with the constant struggles of being an African American when he had to travel with the team, “Owens was restricted to ordering carry-out or eating at black-only restaurants. Similarly, he had to stay at blacks-only hotels” ( Thomas 2017,2 ), and unlike his teammates, Jesse Owens wasn’t allowed to live on campus, because the University didn’t have housing for black students. So the discrimination was still there for as well-known Jesse Owens had been during the Great Migration, and nothing stopped him from doing this, so he continued to work part-time jobs to help pay off school. So as Owens began being more popular, even the era they were in didn’t treat them differently, and blacks weren’t viewed as special or different. This shows how difficult it must’ve been to be living within these years and the constant distress there had been throughout not only Cleveland but all of the North, where the people from the South had migrated to. It’s crazy to think an Olympic record holder like Owens, who arguably was the best athlete during his time, still ended up spending much of his life struggling with issues of race. “Unlike any other athlete, Jesse Owens’ life was defined and restricted by his color” (Taha, 2012). He suffered humiliating treatment even as the star he had become. The racism he experienced in the 1930s would be no different, if not worse, than the normal African American individual who moved up north during the migration.
The 1920s and 30s were landmarks of the sport’s explosion as a phenomenon linked to a new lifestyle that hit different parts of the world. These regions have seen a revolution that took from its sport and playful character and made it competitive. This situation was exploited by many different countries, viewing athletes and national sports teams as an expansion of politics ( Salun, 2012). The first political that used the sport and Olympic Games as a market instrument to promote his ideas was the one and only Adolf Hitler. Hitler used this as a time to show the new Germany that was born after World War I and to demonstrate the power and strength of its political organization and the state. Throughout the tortured history of sports and politics, one moment will always stand out above others before. This has been Jesse Owen’s performance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
It wasn’t until the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics that Owens truly earned his claim to fame. The Olympics for Jesse Owens was a weird time for him and the world. Members of the NAACP tried to get Owens to not partake in the Olympics solely because of the reason that an African-American should not promote any type of racist regime after what was going on in the country at the time of all this. They wanted no part of African American athletes participating in these games and tried their best to urge them not to participate; however, it backfired on them, as Jesse Owens helped create a movement with his actions during the Games.
The Olympics during this time was a time filled with political controversy, starting with Adolf Hitler, the German Premier. At the time, “Hitler staged the games, intended to showcase all the white supremacy and the slightest appearance of a successful African American athlete was posed as a threat” ( Taha, 2012, p. 2). This is where Owens put on a show for all to see and for the world to know he had been the athlete around, winning many gold medals and first-place finishes. Owens had trained over in Berlin, where he hadn’t back home in the United States, so the way he chose to live out his life over there had been a bit different for a black man. He also trained and stayed with his white teammates (something that was new for him as well), as he just began doing that, whereas in Cleveland, he dealt with numerous accounts of racism and no partakes of his white teammates. Over in Berlin for these games, Owens and the others participating in the Olympic events didn’t receive any too little racism as in many parts of America at the time in the United States had been dealing with and staying segregated at certain hotels, bathrooms, and other common places people would meet at.
Although, all of this changed when he came back home to the States, where he received pretty much the same treatment as he was getting before he left. No special attention was drawn his way coming back home after winning numerous awards and honors, as well as no invite to the white house. Jesse Owens had brought his frustration out and was quoted saying this about what had gone down when he came back home,
“After I came back 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”- Jesse Owens (White, 2016).
Despite all of his successes at the Olympics, Owens still had to manage to pay for all of his school by working summer days. Nowadays, anyone could receive an academic or athletic scholarship, but Jesse Owens was, unfortunately, living in the era before this time of day. Owen’s post-Olympic experiences began to shape his philosophy about race relations in the United States. He started to believe that blacks should be fighting for their own power, for economic, not political, means. This is an important belief in today’s world, let alone a time when it meant something a lot more and was a more focused issue. This was a time when no one wanted to see blacks prevail and succeed, and Owens wanted to break that norm, especially close to the time during World War I and II. Even after his successes, he still had to fight for his living, freedom, and his family. His reception pretty much back home didn’t change all that much after the games, only to have his name become more well known; other than that, he was treated the same, particularly based on what had been going on in the North at this time. Unlike modern-day athletes, who can get paid handsomely through their sport, Owens continued to take a number of different jobs to support himself and the others around him. Later he became a motivational speaker and a public relations representative because he felt that was his title after track.
The race relations following the 1930s were a weird time in America for blacks and athletes as a whole. This was a period where racism was probably as strong as ever in the South, which led to an increase of African Americans up North. Many in which migrated up during World War II to escape, and this move ended up causing tension all throughout. Many new deal programs at the time gave African Americans opportunities that they had often lacked in the past years. Jesse Owens, for this and his many abilities, not only including his athletic ones, helped him be a star and one of the best-known African American people during the time and will continue to inspire people for generations to come. What he did and allowed for black athletes at the time was a huge step regarding all that was going on in the 1930s and 1940s and how the U.S. and the northern cities dealt with a lot of racism and discrimination. Later in his time, Owens began speaking out across the country in parts for the United States Olympic Committee. With this, it emphasized to his audiences the need for hard work, perseverance, as well as religious devotion. In the end, it was “African Americans athletes who made the greatest contributions to racial understandings” ( Miller & Wiggins, 2004).
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