Today’s post was written by Netisha Currie, Archives Specialist at the National Archives in College Park
The new biographical movie about Jesse Owens, Race, will be released in theaters this Friday, February 19th. The title has a double meaning – alluding to Owens’ historic record breaking feats he performed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics as well as his identity as an African American, which presented hurdles as a citizen of the United States.
Jesse Owens was born in Oakville, Alabama in 1913. In the 1920s, his family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio as part of the Great Migration. After a very successful track career in high school (where he helped his team win a national title and set world records), Owens was heavily recruited by many colleges due to his athletic prowess. Jesse Owens decided to run track at The Ohio State University, where, although he was the track star, campus segregation barred him and other African American athletes from living on campus and traveling on the same bus to track meets. In spite of these and other hardships, Jesse Owens earned the title of “fastest man on Earth” at a Big Ten meet in which he broke three world records (long jump, 220 yard sprint, and 220 hurdles) and tied the world record for the 100 yard dash.
Next came the 1936 Olympics, taking place in Berlin, Germany. These Olympic games were met with controversy in the United States. Many athletes and supporters were concerned that participation would send the message that the US supported Hitler’s regime; and on the other side, many wanted to go to prove the idea of Aryan supremacy wrong. With four gold medals won in the 100 meter, 200 meter, long jump, and the 4×100 relay – Jesse Owens overwhelmingly showed the world the error in the thought of Aryan superiority. Owens excellent showing and winning four gold medals was not matched until Carl Lewis won gold in the same events at the 1984 Olympics.
Jesse Owens Olympic glory was celebrated around the world, his dominance at the games making him arguably the most famous Olympian. When Owens returned home, he was met with the mixed bag of treatment and courtesy afforded to an African American living in the US. From the series Franklin D. Roosevelt President’s Official Files, 1933-1945 (NAID 567634) there are numerous letters and telegrams expressing enthusiasm and glee for how the “fastest human” will be welcomed and celebrated when he gets home. One telegram, from New York City, announces that “Jesse Owens has been officially selected to March at the head of the American Olympic in the welcome home parade up Broadway,” and the Good Neighbor League “would be honored to carry on by presenting your greetings to these great athletes.”
Another letter from the same file (OF 720: Olympic Games, NAID 2780709) puts forward suggestions for an extravagant homecoming, citing the political and social gains:
“It would seem that a move of this kind would be a Master stroke for many obvious reasons – politically and otherwise…This should please the negro race because of Jesse Owen[sic] and the other colored Americans…I believe that the most extreme Southerner would laud you for this very discreet and timely move”
Still other letters came in calling directly for President Roosevelt to invite Jesse Owens to the White House and shake his hand. The pastor of Roosevelt’s valet, Ernest Hall of Cleveland, wrote: “I am writing today to ask that you make provision for the successful contestants of the Olympic games in Germany to be officially received by yourself upon their return home without regard to race or color. I am certain that you are not aware of the electric effect such an action on your part will have upon the twelve million Negroes in America.”
The reply from the White House was sadly evasive and noncommittal – citing a packed schedule of trips to flooded areas over which the President had no control.
Jesse Owens nor any of the other persons of color that won medals for the United States during the 1936 Olympics were invited to the White House to be received by President Roosevelt. A myth grew out of the games stating that a humiliated Adolf Hitler refused to shake hands with Owens. Owens himself addressed the “snub” myth: “I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either.”
Owens remained a celebrated figure to the American public, however, and in 1976, he received the highest civilian honor – the Presidential Medal of Freedom, given at the White House by President Gerald Ford.
The award ceremony was everything that should have happened 40 years earlier. Held after the conclusion of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, the White House lawn was full of Owens peers, athletes who received congratulations on their recent victories, but who came to see the greatest American Olympian receive his highest honor. Owens even had a fan in the President himself, who witnessed the record breaking day at the Big Ten meet in 1935. The official citation along with the Exchange of Remarks between the President and Jesse Owens (NAID 7345229) is below.
The Medal of Freedom citation read:
To Jesse Owens, athlete, humanitarian, speaker, author – a master of the spirit as well as the mechanics of sport. He is a winner who knows that winning is not everything. He has shared with others his courage, his dedication to the highest ideals of sportsmanship. His achievements have shown us all the promise of American and his faith in American has inspired countless others to do their best for themselves and for their country.
I would like to thank my colleague Kirsten Carter for supplying documents from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.