Day 6

Remembering Jesse Owens, the Black Olympian who humiliated Hitler

Jesse Owens, a Black American athlete, blew past competitors at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, shattering Nazi Germany's image of white supremacy in the process. On what would have been his 107th birthday, Owens' granddaughter shares her thoughts on his life and legacy.

He should have been hailed as a hero, but U.S. President Roosevelt didn't shake his hand: granddaughter

Jesse Owens was an American track and field athlete. He won 4 gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Gina Hemphill-Strachan saw her late grandfather as everyone else sees theirs.

"He'd pick me up from school sometimes. He was the person who, when I attempted to run track at Arizona State, came to my track meets," she said. "He was granddad."

But to those unrelated to him, James Cleveland Owens wasn't just some guy. He was better known as Jesse Owens, a Black athlete whose gold medal-winning performance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics quashed Adolf Hitler's myth of Aryan supremacy.

"People always asked him about, what was it like to be in Berlin at that time, and what was it like to compete in the Olympic Games," she said. "He was always very proud and very humble."

Owens first gained notoriety in the 1935 Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor, Mich. There, he set three world records in the long jump, the 220-yard sprint, and the 220-yard low hurdles. He also tied the 100-yard dash record. 

Owens, right, crosses the finishing line to win the 100 metres at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He won 3 other gold medals in the 200 metres, 4 X 100 metres relay and long jump. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Then just 21 years old, Owens' status as a hot track and field prospect made him a star going into the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

But the decision to attend the Games wasn't an easy one. 

"The NAACP didn't want him as a Black man going to represent the United States because the United States, at the time, was not a supporter of African Americans," Hemphill-Strachan said.

Ultimately, Owens decided to go to the Olympics, which were hosted in Nazi Germany. Despite the intimidating surroundings, Owens won gold medals in the 100 metres, 200 metres, 4x100-metre relay and the long jump. 

Hitler didn't acknowledge Owens despite attending several of his events. This wasn't known to be an attack on the American in particular. After being criticized for only shaking the hands of German athletes on the first day of the Games, Hitler refused to shake any Olympian's hand from then on.

Upon his return to America following the Games, Owens was not invited to the White House, nor was he given an opportunity to shake the U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's hands like some of his white teammates.

"[Roosevelt] didn't want to acknowledge and didn't want to recognize him as being the American hero that he was," said Hemphill-Strachan.

"He represented the country with great honour and great respect and great dignity, and so [Roosevelt] should've been proud to invite him to the White House. But unfortunately, that wasn't the case."

The 1936 Olympics were the end of Owens' short athletic career. U.S. athletic officials revoked his amateur status after accepting lucrative endorsement offers following the Games.

Owens was forced to take on menial jobs, such as a gas station attendant and playground janitor, to make ends meet and support his growing family.

Hemphill-Strachan notes that Owens never felt burdened by his skin colour or the reputation he had built. On the contrary, she says he saw it as a responsibility.

"Certainly, it became overwhelming for him as it would for anybody," she said. "But, I don't think it became so overwhelming that he didn't embrace it and welcome not just the accolades, but also the criticism that came along with it."

'A great man of people'

Hemphill-Strachan said her grandfather's popularity never got into his head. He wouldn't speak about his accomplishments to his own family members unless they asked, and if someone asked for an autograph or a photo, he always obliged, even if he was in the process of eating.

"He never really saw himself as being more than anybody else, but just somebody who was provided an opportunity to do something great, took advantage of the opportunity and tried to make the best of it in having a better life for himself and his family," she said.

Gina Hemphill-Strachan is the granddaughter of the late Jesse Owens, an athlete who won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Submitted by Gina Hemphill-Strachan)
Hemphill-Strachan remembered one story involving her grandfather and a stranger's broken car.

"[This man] was on the side of the road, his car was disabled and he was flagging down trying to get somebody to help him," she said.
Most of the cars drove away without a second thought. But eventually, one car stopped for him, and out stepped Owens. The man, who didn't recognize Owens, was startled.

"His immediate reaction was a little bit of apprehension because a strange, Black man was getting out of the car and he didn't really know what his intentions were," she said. 

After inquiring about the man's mechanical problems, Owens drove to a nearby gas station and asked them to help the man with the broken car.

The man never saw Owens again until a few years later.

"He was sitting and watching television and my grandfather was on television," she said. "And he told his grandson, 'Oh my gosh, that's the man who got out of his car on the side of the road and helped me when nobody else would help me.'"

Hemphill-Strachan was only made aware of this story by the grandson of the man in question, years after Owens had passed away. She cites this story as an example of her grandfather's modesty.

"He was a great man of integrity and he was a great man of people," she said.

Owens' legacy

It's been 40 years since Owens died, but Hemphill-Strachan is reminded of his presence every day when she sees Black athletes speak out against racial injustice as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

"It takes a lot of strength and courage to do what they're doing," she said. "And one of the things that I think about my granddad is that it took a lot of strength, it took a lot of determination, it took a lot of grit, to do what he did."

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From the NBA to the NHL, our sports panellists look at the different responses from pro athletes in the wake of another police shooting of a Black man, in Wisconsin. Plus, the role fans need to play moving forward.

As his 107th birthday approaches, Hemphill-Strachan hopes people continue to learn from the legacy of her grandfather and other great Black athletes of the past.

"It's not just a legacy with his four gold medals and a great athlete, but just a great person and a great human being," she said. "I think that's really part of the legacy that he has left me and my sisters and my cousins and my mom and my aunts and so many young people."

Written and produced by Mouhamad Rachini.

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