Jesse Owens
Jesse Owens (James Cleveland Owens) runs at the Olympic Summer Games in Berlin in 1936 ullstein bild / Getty Images

How Jesse Owens' Childhood Made Him the Champion Seen in Race

Feb 19, 2016

Like most great heroes, Jesse Owens had his own creation myth — which is not to suggest that it was untrue. By his own reckoning, he was more or less molded by the tragic events and desperate circumstances of his childhood in Alabama and then Ohio. Born on September 12, 1913, in Oakville, Alabama, James Cleveland Owens was the tenth and last child of Henry and Mary Emma Owens. He sometimes said later in life that his early childhood in Alabama was essentially happy, because he had no idea how poor he was. But there was nothing genteel about the Owenses’ brand of poverty. For sharecroppers like Henry Owens, every day was filled with struggle. If there was too much rain or not enough, if there was too much frost, a crop could fail—and then it would take all his resourcefulness merely to feed his family. For the Owenses, everything but food, shelter, and the simplest clothes was a luxury that simply could not be afforded — even medical care.

For Jesse Owens, the defining moment of his youth—the story he told over and over — revolved around a fibrous bump he noticed on his chest the day after he turned five. At first he thought it would just go away. But within a few days he could see it growing and feel it pressing against his lungs. Eventually, J.C., as his parents called him, could no longer bear the discomfort. He told his mother. Not always the most reliable narrator of his own life story, Owens later reconstructed the subsequent conversation he claimed he overheard between Henry and Emma Owens:

“We’ve got to do something,” Emma said to Henry.

“You took one off his leg once, Emma.”

“But this one’s so big. And near his heart.”

“Emma —”

“Don’t say it, Henry!”

“I’m going to say it. If the Lord wants him —”

All these years later, it is impossible to say who had the greater talent for melodrama, Henry Owens, in his fatalism, or Jesse Owens, in his storytelling. Certainly it is possible that Jesse misrepresented Henry’s exact words, but undoubtedly Henry was a man who had come to expect the worst in any situation.

The son of former slaves, Henry Owens had grown up in Oakville, not far from Georgia but a world away from the nearest big town, Decatur, which is 20 miles to the northeast. He spent most of his life scratching out a living as a sharecropper. By most accounts, he lived in mortal fear of his landlords — and other white men. For southern black men of his generation, deference to white men was nothing less than a survival imperative. Between 1882 and 1902 there were more than one hundred lynchings each year in the United States, the vast majority perpetrated in the South. All his life, Henry Owens avoided making eye contact with whites.

Emma Owens was as ambitious as her husband was timid. Against all odds, she held out hope that her children’s lives would be less bleak than hers. She had grown up in less desperate circumstances than her husband. She knew that there was a world outside Oakville, even if Henry didn’t. From the beginning, Jesse took after his mother, not the father who had long ago learned to keep his expectations low — even when the subject was his son’s health.

A few nights after little J.C. brought the growth on his chest to his parents’ attention, he was lying in bed. His mother came to him and said, “I’m going to take the bump off now, J.C.” The Owens family could not afford the services of a physician.

As Henry Owens wept quietly in the corner, Emma Owens sterilized a kitchen knife over a flame. Then she started cutting into her son’s chest. J.C. bit down hard on a leather strap. No sound penetrated the strap, but tears flowed down his cheeks. Dark, thick blood started pouring out of him. Emma moved the knife around the edges of the lump, searching for its contours, trying to determine its size and consistency. It was bigger than she had thought. It seemed to her as if the blade was inching too close to J.C.’s heart. Still, she kept cutting. Finally it was done. She extracted the gelatinous lump, and in its place was a hole the size of a golf ball, not oozing but spurting blood. Emma tried to stop the bleeding, but for days it continued.

1936 Olympic Games, Berlin, Germany. Five young women take part in a display of the Olympic Rings.
Five young women take part in a display of the Olympic Rings at the 1936 Olympic Games in BerlinPopperfoto—Getty Images
1936 Olympic Games, Berlin, Germany. Five young women take part in a display of the Olympic Rings.
Beginning of the eleventh Olympic Games. August 1,1936.
1936 Olympic Games, Berlin, Germany, Men's 100 Metres Final, USA's legendary Jesse Owens on his way to winning one of his four gold medals.
The 13-year springboard diver Marjorie Gestring at the Olympic Games in Berlin. August 12, 1936.
A German technician checks the Television canon put in the Olympic Stadium, 01 August 1936, a huge electronic camera buildt by Telefunken, which broadcast live for the first time, 8 hours each day, the Berlin Olympics Games show.
Berlin Olympic Games, Jesse Owens and Helen Stephens, 1936, Germany.
Gisela Mauermayer, Germany, winner of the gold medal in the Discus event at the 1936 Olympic Games.
Dr. Joseph Goebbels, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, Reichs Sports Leader Hans von Tschammer und Osten and Generalfeldmarschall Werner von Blomberg observe the Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany in August 1936. (AP Photo) --- Dr. Goebbels, Adolf Hitler, Tschammer und Osten, von Blomberg als Zuschauer bei den Olympischen Spielen in Berlin, im August 1936.
Winner of the men's javelin throw event at the Summer Olympic Games, German athlete Gerhard Stoeck in action on August 6, 1936 in Berlin, Germany.
1936 Olympic Games, Berlin, Germany. Women's 80 Metres Hurdles, The start of the race which was won by Valle of Italy.
The Racing Cyclists Robert Charpentier, Guy Lapebie, Jean Goujon And Roger Le Nizerhy Just After Having Won The Team Race At The Olympic Games Of Berlin In August 1936.
1936 Olympic Games, Berlin, Germany. Basketball action between the Philippines and Mexico.
The German Female Javelin Throwers Tilly Fleischer (Gold Medal) And Luis Kruger (Silver Medal) As Well As The Polish Bronze-Medalist Marja Kwasniewska, Standing On The Podium Of The Olympic Games In Berlin On August 2, 1936.
1936 Olympic Games. Berlin, Germany. Women's Javelin. Germany's Tilly Fleischer who won the gold medal.
Olympic broad jump medalists salute during the medals ceremony at the Summer Olympics in Berlin. From left on podium are: bronze medalist Jajima of Japan, gold medalist Jesse Owens of the United States and silver medalist Lutz Long of Germany. August 11, 1936.
Olympic winner Gustav 'Gummi' Schaefer, German rower, with the laurel wreath during the Summer Olympics in Berlin-Grünau in August 1936.
1936 Olympic Games, Berlin, Germany, A stonemason at work records the feat of USA's Jesse Owens, winner of four gold medals in the Games.
Five young women take part in a display of the Olympic Rings at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin
Popperfoto—Getty Images
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Three nights after the makeshift operation, J.C. rose from his bed and walked to the front door of the tiny house. He later said that he could hear his father praying outside. “Oh, Lord Jesus,” Henry said, “Please, please, hear me. I know you hear everything, but this saving means everything. She’ll die if he dies — and if she dies, Lord, we’ll all die — all of us.”

As he listened to his father’s desperate prayer, J.C. was getting weaker. “My body was emptying of blood,” he later wrote.

“He’s my last boy,” Henry continued, still on his knees. “J.C.’s the one you gave me last to carry my name. She’ll die if you take him from me. She always said he was born special.”

Then J.C. walked into the night, into his father’s arms. “Pray, J.C.,” Henry Owens said. “Pray, James Cleveland.” Together, father and son knelt and prayed.

Within minutes, Jesse Owens later wrote, the bleeding stopped. The growth was probably a fibrous tumor.

As an adult, Owens usually described his hardscrabble youth in Oakville as beyond miserable — an endless cycle of poverty, hunger, and humiliation. But on other occasions he said that he had been happy in Alabama. Knowing nothing of the world beyond Lawrence County, he never considered himself deprived. “We never had any problems,” he said. “We always ate. The fact that we didn’t have steak? Who had steak?”

J.C. and his six brothers and three sisters were forced to spend about one week each year picking cotton, but most of the time they were free to play out in the fields that Henry Owens farmed.

Religion was a constant for the Owens family. They were devout Baptists, regular congregants at the Oakville Missionary Baptist Church, where Henry was a deacon. During the week it was the schoolhouse for Oakville’s black children. J.C., though, like most of his siblings, wasn’t there enough to learn much more than how to read and write. More often he was out in the fields, running barefoot, running because he loved it and because there was little else to do.

“I always loved running,” he said about his youth in Oakville. “I wasn’t very good at it, but I loved it because it was something you could do all by yourself, all under your own power. You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.”

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From Triumph by Jeremy Schaap (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Copyright © 2007 by Jeremy Schaap. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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