Wednesday, 13 April 2011

BOOK REVIEWS ~ Jesse Owens ~ By: Mervyn Kaufman

"Jesse Owens" is another "Crowell Biography" ~ just like the books we have recently read (and reviewed) about "Ray Charles" and "Paul Robeson."

Owens was called James Cleveland Owens at birth, but when he was in school and a teacher asked him his name, he replied "J. C."  That teacher misheard the initials and thought the young boy had said his name was "Jesse."  Although incorrect, the name stuck, and the lad soon became known as Jesse Owens.

Owens was born near Oakville, Alabama on September 12, 1913.  "Jesse Owens was once the fastest man in the world.  He could run faster and jump farther than anyone.  But when he was little, he was sickly and weak.  His parents were afraid he would die" (Page 1).  Jesse was one of seven children ~ four sons and three daughters. Jesse was frail.  "Every winter he got sick.  His Mother nursed him back to health with loving care and homemade medicines.  One winter when Jesse was sick, he nearly died of cold.  There wasn't enough wood to keep the fireplace going, and he couldn't get warm.  The Owens house was made of thin boards that always let the cold in" (Page 2).

The family moved North in 1921, settling in Cleveland, Ohio.  "Life was no better for them there, because work was hard to find.  Mr. Owens rarely had a steady job.  Sometimes he washed windows.  Sometimes he swept floors.  Mrs. Owens worked as a cleaning lady.  The family ate beans and onions, potatoes and onions, or bread and onions.  There was never enough food to go around and almost never any meat.  Often they came close to starving" (Page 4).

Although Jesse still seemed frail, "by the time he was twelve, he could beat any of his friends whenever they ran races at school.  One day, after winning a race, Jesse met Charles Riley, coach of the track team at the Junior High School.  Mr. Riley trained boys on the team to run fast and jump high and far.  Coach Riley was surprised that a boy so skinny could run so well.  He thought that by running a little each day, Jesse might be able to go even faster.  And perhaps, someday, he could get on the track team" (Pages 5 and 6).

When Jesse explained he couldn't run after school because he had to help support his family, Coach Riley suggested he began training before school.  "He met Riley on the sidewalk outside the school every morning.  Jesse ran for forty-five minutes, until the bell rang.  Mr. Riley coached him, helping him run faster and farther.  Mr. Riley helped him in other ways.  Sometimes he brought Jesse food.  'See how this tastes,' he would say.  'My wife cooked it.'  He could see that Jesse didn't get much to eat at home.  Coach Riley was the first white man Jesse ever knew, and Jesse came to love him very much" (Page 6).

Jesse kept trying and Mr. Riley kept encouraging him.  When Jesse lamented that he wouldn't be good enough to make the team "this year," his coach told him:  " 'Who says you have to make it this year?'  'You're training for four years from next Friday' .... Mr. Riley kept saying this - week after week and month after month for two years" (Page 7).

"Finally, Jesse did get on the track team.  And one day he set a record.  He ran a hundred yards in only ten seconds" (Page 8).  "Hardly anybody noticed Jesse in high school, until he entered a big track meet along with athletes from all over the country.  He won the 100-yard dash, the 200-yard dash, and the broad jump.  Now a lot of people knew who he was.  Newspaper reporters wrote stories about him.  Colleges sent people to see him.  Each college wanted him on its track team.  Four years of college would cost a lot of money, but the schools were willing to pay it all" (Pages 8 and 9).

Jesse Owens 
"In Action on the track!"
By this time, Jesse was married to Ruth Solomon, his long-time sweetheart.  He was also working at night and after school - often as many as three jobs at once.  Suddenly, Jesse's father lost his job and so his son refused all the offers.  "He couldn't live like a rich man while his father struggled to find work.  He even quit the track team.  But he was very sad."  The family "scraped by on what money Emma [Jesse's mother] and the children brought in" (Page 9).

Thankfully, Mr. Riley [his old coach] stepped in.  Riley arranged with "Larry Snyder, the best track coach in the country" for Jesse to attend Ohio State University.  Jesse would be able to work three different jobs to pay for his schooling.  Riley also arranged for a job for Jesse's father with the State of Ohio, for as long as he wished.  "Jesse was so happy, he threw his arms around Riley and kissed him!" (Page 11).

Ruth stayed back in Cleveland while Jesse went to college in Columbus.  "He worked hard, studied until late at night, and trained with the track team every day.  The team had only a few Negroes.  They lived in the same house and ate all their meals together. Whenever there was a track meet at another school, they traveled in the same car.  One morning Jesse and three black teammates were on their way to a meet in Indiana.  They had been driving since dawn.  The white members of the team rode in cars ahead of them.  About nine o'clock Coach Snyder decided to have breakfast.  He stopped at a roadside diner.  The others parked behind him.  Snyder and the white boys went inside.  Jesse and his black teammates stayed in their car.  They could see Snyder talking to a woman behind the counter.  She was shaking her head, no.  They knew that meant Negroes could not eat at this diner.  A few minutes later, two of the boys came outside with plates of friend eggs and stacks of sliced bread.  The food was passed to the black athletes.  They had just started eating when they heard a loud, angry voice outside the car.  'So this is why you wanted extra food,' a man snarled.  He was a big fellow with a white apron tied around him.  The boys guessed that he owned the diner.  'You got paid, didn't you, mister?' one of them said.  'I don't want money to feed any niggers, the man shouted.  Then he reached through one of the car windows and began grabbing the plates of food.  Silverware went flying, and the fried eggs spilled on the floor.  He carried his plates back to the diner.  The hungry athletes had to eat what food was left, from the floor.  That afternoon Jesse ran as hard and as fast as he ever had.  He had to win that day, and he did.  But winning didn't make him feel any better.  He was still burning with rage inside." (Pages 11 to 15).

Jesse Owens went to the Olympic Games, which were held in Berlin, Germany in 1936.  He was entered in four events ~ broad jump, two races (100 m and 200 m) and the 4 x 100 m relay. When Owens had trouble qualifying for the broad jump, he was encouraged by Lutz Long of Germany. Jesse had fouled ~ twice!  "Suddenly a firm hand gripped his arm.  Jesse Owens found himself looking into the clear blue eyes of the man who was his rival.  'Hello, I am Lutz Long,' the man said.  'Something is wrong.  You are a better jumper than this.  You must qualify' " (Pages 18 and 19).

With this encouragement, from his competitor, Jesse Owens DID qualify (by more than a foot).  "In the actual event, Lutz Long's best jump was nearly twenty-six feet.  He broke his own record and set another new Olympic mark.  But Jesse Owens beat him.  Jesse's record jump was more than twenty-six feet" (Page 19).

"After Lutz had tried and failed to beat the American, he ran back to shake Jesse's hand.  Then he held Jesse's arm up in the air and shouted to the crowd, 'Jesse Owens!  Jesse Owens!'  A hundred thousand voices called back.  The stadium rang with the sound of Jesse's name chanted over and over.  He won the highest award for the broad jump, a gold medal.  Then he won two races and a relay.  When the Olympic Games were over, he had four gold medals.  Jesse Owens had gone to Germany with only one suit of clothes and $7.40 in his pocket.  When he left, his suit was wrinkled, and he didn't have a penny.  But he was coming home a hero.  His family could hardly wait to see him, but they were not the only ones.  Thousands of people stood along the streets cheering, when he arrived in New York City.  His picture was in every newspaper.  Parties were given to honor him.  Everyone wanted to shake his hand and talk with him, but nobody offered him a job.  It wasn't easy for a black man to get ahead then, not even an Olympic hero" (Pages 22 and 23).

Finally Jesse received a job offer.  "One night two men came to see him.  They had a plan they said would help Jesse earn a lot of money.  They were starting two Negro baseball teams.  The teams would travel around the country, playing each other.  Jesse Owens would travel with them.  Jesse was interested.  He thought he would like playing baseball.  Or maybe he would take care of the teams as they traveled.  But the men had a different idea.  They wanted to use Jesse to get more people to pay to see the teams play.  Their idea was for him to run a race with a fast horse before every game.  Jesse said no.  He would feel like an animal, doing such a thing.  'Think about it,' said one of the men.  'We'll be back.'  Jesse thought of nothing else.  The idea of racing against a horse made him sick.  Still, if he earned enough money, he could go back to school.  He thought and thought.  When the men returned, Jesse told them, 'I've changed my mind.  I've decided to do it.  Three times a week he raced against a horse, while crowds of people watched him.  He was miserable.  He felt worse than an animal.  He felt like a slave.  He quit after a few months.  He couldn't stand the job anymore.  But he had enough money to finish college" (Page 25-27).

Soon afterwards, another individual came forward and asked Jesse. " 'How would you like to make a million dollars without lifting a finger?  All you have to do is lend your name.  The idea sounded too good to be true, but Jesse agreed to it.  He signed some papers and became one of the partners in a new dry-cleaning business.  Soon Jesse Owens Cleaning Stores were opening all over Cleveland, and in other towns, too.  Business was good.  Jesse was earning more money than he had ever seen.  He bought a big house for Ruth, himeself, and their children.  There were three daughters now.  He also bought a home for his parents.  One day he tried to reach his partners and found that they had all left town.  Why, he wondered.  Then he found out.  They all owed a lot of money and had left him to pay it.  Jesse had not saved any money.  So every cleaning store was closed, and all the equipment was sold.  It took him five years to pay back what was owed.  He had to sell both houses.  It made him sad to move his parents into a shabby little apartment.  They were old now.  He had wanted them to live in comfort" (Pages 27 and 28).

In 1942, Jesse and his family moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he helped to hire workers for Ford Motor Company.  After work, "Jesse taught basketball and other sports to a group of boys.  On weekends he gave speeches at club meetings.  People paid to hear him talk about the Olympic Games.  Soon he realized that what he enjoyed most, of everything he had ever done, was working with young people" (Page 30).

A move to Chicago, Illinois came in 1949.  "Jesse went to work for the State.  His job was to help boys who got into trouble with the police.  He knew they needed things to do to keep them out of trouble.  So he organized baseball and basketball teams, and he trained the boys to play quite well" (Page 31).

"In 1955 the United States Government sent Jesse on a good-will trip around the world.  He talked to schoolchildren and young athletes.  They always made him tell about winning his Olympic medals.  He was called the Ambassador of Sports" (Page 32).

When he returned to Chicago, Jesse went on the radio, playing recordings of Negro jazz.  He continued to travel, back and forth, speaking to schools and clubs.  "He talks about the Olympic Games, and he also talks about something he has believed in since he was a boy growing up:  brotherhood.  Jesse believes that all men are born equal, no matter what their religion is or their colour.  Not everyone feels as he does, but he wants them to, very much.  This is why he travels and talks to so many people.  He remembers how his parents struggled to bring up their children.  He remembers eating fried eggs off the floor of a car back in Indiana.  He knows things are better for some black people now.  He hopes things will still get better.  He also hopes it will be soon" (Page 33).

Kaufman's biography ends at this point.  Further research shows that Jesse Owens died in Tucson, Arizona on March 31, 1980 as a result of complications from lung cancer.  He is buried at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois.

Final Resting Place
At the time of his death, President Jimmy Carter said: "Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry. His personal triumphs as a world-class athlete and record holder were the prelude to a career devoted to helping others. His work with young athletes, as an unofficial ambassador overseas, and a spokesman for freedom are a rich legacy to his fellow Americans."


  1. I am so encouraged that you do much reading at Porter's Primary!

    Another great book is "Carry on, Mr. Bowditch". A very good read and would great for Alisdair's level and comprehention. It is a book that I have read over and over again and always enjoy and love it's funny stories and the repeting phrase: "Carry on, Mr. Bowditch"

    Also, have you ever heard of Eric Liddel? He has an amazing story--a Christian olympic athlete who wouldn't run (in the Olympics) on a Sunday. A very good read-- the "Young Reader's Christiam Library" edition would be a good level for Alisdair (and Isobel too!)

    Happy reading!

  2. *** "Liddell" is spelled with two "l's" :D**