His name was James
Cleveland, but his family called him J.C. Born in 1913 during the
height of segregation, J.C. was the seventh and youngest child of
Henry and Emma Owens. Henry was a sharecropper whose father was a
former slave, making J.C. the grandson of a slave.
When he was 9 years old, J.C.'s family moved to Cleveland, Ohio,
which is a coincidence since his middle name was Cleveland. One of
his teachers misunderstood the "J.C." initials as something else due
to his Southern accent, and she began calling him by that name. The
new name stayed with him for the rest of his life.
In junior high school, he set two world records in track: in the
high jump and in the broad jump. In high school, he won the state
championship three years in a row. He also set the world record in
both the 100-yard dash and the 220-yard dash. It is not his
accomplishments in high school track for which he is remembered,
He went on to attend Ohio State University, where he became an
all-American in track. In his junior year, he won all 42 events in
which he competed. It is not his accomplishments at Ohio State
University for which he is remembered, though.
Later in life, J.C. would become Cleveland's playground director,
a job that was very rewarding for him, but it is not the
accomplishment for which he is remembered. He would later go on to
spend the rest of his life working with underprivileged youth.
His impact has been felt all over the world. As far away as
Germany, a street leading to the Olympic stadium is named in his
honor, and in the Ivory Coast, the street on which the United States
embassy is located is named after him.
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He personally met Presidents Eisenhower, Ford and Carter before
he died in 1980. In fact, he received the Presidential Medal of
Freedom, which is the highest award that a civilian can receive,
from President Ford in 1976, but that is not the accomplishment for
which he is remembered.
Between growing up in Cleveland and work with underprivileged
kids, J.C. did something else, and it is this accomplishment for
which he is remembered. In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, J.C. won four
gold medals: the 100-meter dash (10.3 seconds), the long jump (26.5
feet), the 200-meter dash (20.7 seconds) and the 400-meter relay
By doing so, he proved to Adolph Hitler that the German "Aryan"
people were not superior to any other races.
You say you still haven't heard of him?
Earlier I mentioned that one of his teachers misunderstood his
nickname of "J.C." and began calling him by a different name. She
thought that J.C.'s parents were calling him Jesse, so that is what
she began calling him (try saying "J.C." with a Southern accent and
you'll know what I mean). Ever since then, J.C. Owens has been known
as Jesse Owens.
And that is the story of perhaps the greatest Olympic athlete of
all time. If he's not the greatest, then he certainly is the most
well-remembered, even though his records have since been broken.
Paul Niemann's column is syndicated
to more than 70 newspapers. He is the author of the "Invention
Mysteries" series of books. He can be reached at
Copyright Paul Niemann 2008