Remembering Jesse Owens–An Olympian from the Deep South

In this guest post, Barclay Key, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, reflects on the meaning of race and commemoration in the Deep South through his personal recollections of growing up in Lawrence County, Alabama, the same county where Olympic great Jesse Owens was born.  Key has a poignant essay about Owens in a forthcoming volume Destination Dixie: Tourism and Southern History.

While I have the vaguest memory, perhaps concocted later, of Al Michaels asking in 1980 if I believe in miracles, the 1984 Summer Olympics figured most prominently in my childhood.  As an eight-year-old in rural northwest Alabama, I had already developed a passion for some sports, particularly Dixie Youth baseball and Alabama football, but I had little knowledge of the varieties of athletic competition on display in Los Angeles.

Carl Lewis, Mary Lou Retton, and John Williams clearly inspired something in me because I soon developed my own Olympic events and invited friends to participate.  We had the traditional sprints that measured the length of our front yard, but other events required more imagination.  The shot put contest consisted of heaving a brick, and my gymnastics routine was limited to hanging from our rusty swing set, swaying a bit, and dismounting letting go.  I also managed to incorporate an obstacle course and an Atari game or two.  Motivated in part by Red Dawn, I went undefeated versus the Soviets as my games extended into the fall and winter.

Jesse Owens, 4-time Gold Medalist at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Imagine my delight the following summer when my mother offered to take me to the nearby Jesse Owens monument.  I had come to understand that Owens was an Olympic hero.  Lewis’s four gold medals in 1984 elicited comparisons to Owens, who had won four gold medals during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany.  And I had recently participated in the Jesse Owens Memorial Run, a new event in my hometown that acknowledged the track star’s local connection to Oakville, a community near our small town.

Even if he wasn’t technically from my town, I thought, he was from Lawrence County, just like me.  He became an Olympic hero; maybe I could, too.  Or at least I could start at wide receiver for the Univeristy of Alabama Crimson Tide.  In a place where one’s identity relates so closely to home and community, there is a sense in which Owens was becoming “one of us.”  Although I was naïve about this process and its abundant ironies, local people, particularly whites, were coming to embrace Owens as a hometown hero a few years after his death in 1980.

Owens had been a child—about nine years old, just like me—when he migrated with his family from Alabama to Ohio.  To the best of my knowledge, he never stepped foot in the county again.  In autobiographical accounts of his childhood, Owens wrote of the “terror of sharecropping in the South” and the “terror of Oakville,” a community he described as “more an invention of the white landowners than a geographical place.”  I don’t recall anyone explaining why the Owens family left “our home” or why Owens ran for Ohio State University instead of my beloved Crimson Tide.  I completely missed the significance of a black American from Alabama overcoming tremendous odds to represent his own country in an Olympiad often remembered for its Nazi hosts.

Mother’s offer was really more of a bribe.  She needed to run an errand near Owens’s birthplace, about ten miles away, and she did not want to leave me alone.  The promise of seeing the Owens monument convinced me to cooperate.  She provided no details, so my mind ran wild with possibilities.  At the very least, I imagined a large statue surrounded by beautiful flowers, or maybe even an elaborate fountain that would give me an opportunity to make a wish and toss a penny.

Twenty minutes into the drive, my mother exclaimed, “There it is!”

“Where?!” I shrieked, exasperated that I couldn’t immediately locate what must have been an amazing sight.

“Right there,” she replied.

I finally caught a fleeting glance of what looked like a tombstone.  “Is that all there is?” I asked.

A few years ago, I couldn’t resist an opportunity to write an essay about the commemoration of Owens in Lawrence County for Destination Dixie:  Tourism and Southern History.  Readers will learn how this modest monument provoked controversy that spilled into the state and national media and how the Jesse Owens Park and Museum later arose out of the same cotton fields that the Owens family picked before their migration.  This project was cathartic in several ways.  Having navigated the requirements of becoming a “professional historian,” I enjoyed sharing a local story that served as a microcosm of racial tensions and piecemeal efforts at reconciliation that have become more characteristic of the South in recent decades.

My recent interest in the commemoration of Owens illustrates how I too have embraced him as a Lawrence County native, not just an Olympic hero.  Although Owens’s experiences were in no way comparable to my own, I have come to appreciate that his story is indelibly tied to my own, to our own.  My grandfather was a sharecropper; my father started picking cotton at age five.  Their “whiteness” protected them from the racial discrimination that the Owens family faced, both in Alabama and beyond, but we share an ancestral relationship to the land, to work, to want.  We are from Alabama.  Jesse Owens is my people, just as notorious figures like George Wallace are.  Accepting both remains a work in progress for many.