October is Black History Month, and to celebrate, we’re featuring someone who has influenced history every Wednesday and Saturday all through October. Our last instalment features Jesse Owens.

Did you know Jesse Owens’ mother performed makeshift surgery on him at age 5 to remove a golf ball sized growth from his chest?

James Cleveland ‘Jesse’ Owens was an American track and field Athlete and Olympic Gold Medalist. He is most famous for being the most successful athlete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, proving that Hitler’s dream of Aryan supremacy was false.

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Jesse Owens’ Story

Owens was born in Alabama on September 12, 1913, the son of two sharecroppers. He moved to Cleveland Ohio aged 9, where a school teacher thought his nickname of J.C was ‘Jesse’. He was known as Jesse from then on.

By high school, Jesse was already a promising athlete. He set records for numerous events including long and high jump, the 100 yard dash, and 220 yard dash. His sensation high school track career resulted in him being recruited by dozens of colleges. He chose Ohio State University and worked a number of jobs to support himself and his young wife at the time, including an elevator operator and a waiter, at the same time training and winning events on the field.

In Berlin, at the Big Ten Championships on May 25 1935, he set three world records and tied a fourth, all in the space of five minutes. This is regarded by some as the greatest sporting event in history. He was unsure he would even have been able to compete after falling down a flight of stairs and injuring his back.

These incredible feats gave him the confidence that he was able to compete t. The highest possible standard, and he entered the 1936 olympics, hosted in Berlin at the height of Hitler’s Nazi regime. Hitler believed that the white race was superior and wanted to prove that this Aryan race would conquer physically at the olympics. Owens went on to win four gold medals at this Olympics; a feat no one had achieved before, and one that would be particularly important in this time of racial segregation. He stated that Hitler did not congratulate him on his winnings as he had done other athletes, but neither did the American president, Roosevelt.

When he returned home to America, he still had to sit separately on buses and suffer other prejudices due to the colour of his skin, despite his sporting prowess. He took various jobs such as racing against horses or cars at events such as half time in football games to earn money. He also worked as a playground director in Cleveland, and it is here that he found that working with underprivileged youths was something he found incredibly rewarding. After relocating to Chicago, he devoted much of his time to underprivileged youth as a board member and former director of the Chicago Boys’ Club.

Owens traveled widely in his post-Olympic days. He was an inspirational speaker, highly sought after to address youth groups, professional organizations, civic meetings, sports banquets, PTAs, church organisations, brotherhood and black history programs, as well as high school and college commencements and ceremonies. He was also a public relations representative and consultant to many corporations, including Atlantic Richfield, Ford and the United States Olympic Committee.

In 1976, Jesse was awarded the highest civilian honor in the United States, the Medal of Freedom ad in 1979 he was presented with the Living Legend Award.

He died in 1980 due to complications from lung cancer, perhaps due to his long-term smoking habit, but his achievements still stood for a number of years after his death.

Here are a small selection of his accomplishments and awards:

• Jesse set or tied national high school records in the 100 yard dash, 200-yard dash, and the long jump.

• After a stellar high school career, he attended Ohio State University.

• On May 25, 1935, at the Big Ten Conference Championships in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Owens broke three world records (long jump, 220-yard dash and 220-yard low hurdles) and tied a fourth (100-yard dash), all in a 45 minute span.

• In his junior year at Ohio State, Owens competed in 42 events and won them all, including four in the Big Ten Championships, four in the NCAA Championships, two in the AAU Championships and three at the Olympic Trials.

• In 1936, Jesse became the first American in Olympic Track and Field history to win four gold medals in a single Olympiad by winning four gold medals: 100 meter dash in 10.3 seconds (tying the world record), long jump with a jump of 26′ 5 1/4″ (Olympic record), 200 meter dash in 20.7 seconds (Olympic record), and 400 meter relay (first leg) in 39.8 seconds (Olympic and world record).

• In 1976, Jesse was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award bestowed upon a civilian, by Gerald R. Ford.

• Owens was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush.