Family history stories · Stories of WWII

Leading with the heart – the Olympian story of Jesse Owens

James Cleveland Owens looked down at the track under his fingertips. His feet were in the starting blocks. He risked a quick glance to the side as his fellow runners positioned themselves into their starting positions. Then up, at the crowd, the Nazi flags overhead. He took a deep breath, The winner of the men’s 100 m dash is generally accorded the title of the world’s fastest man. Would it be him?

Above him, Adolf Hitler scowled down from his box.


James Cleveland Owens, aka “J.C.” was born in the southern United States. Oakville, Alabama, if you want to get specific. He was the smallest, youngest, and frailest of Henry and Mary Owens’s 10 children. Henry Owens was a sharecropper. He farmed the land that someone else owned, and most years, he didn’t make enough to do more than pay the rent. But he was doing better than his daddy – his daddy had been a plantation slave. It was Henry’s wife, Mary Emma, that really kept the family together. She was tough, and she wanted more for her family than to grow up poor in Alabama. All the kids grew up picking cotton and doing anything they could to bring home money.


J.C. almost didn’t make it out of childhood. He suffered from fibrous tumours, and the family had no medical insurance. When he was really little, his momma had to cut a tumour out of his leg. When he was five, another one started growing, but this one was on his chest. He tried to ignore it, but the tumour was growing faster than he was, and it was pressing painfully down on his heart and his lungs. Eventually, he told his momma.

He wasn’t supposed to hear them talking, his momma and poppa.

“What are we going to do?” said Mary.

“You cut one out of his leg before, Momma,” said Henry.

“But this one’s so big,” said Mary, “and it’s so close to his heart.”

Henry said, “He might…”

“DON’T…!” said Mary.

Henry said, “He might go, Momma. If the Lord wants him.”

Henry couldn’t bear to see it, when it all finally happened. Little J.C., lying on the kitchen table, a thick leather strap between his teeth, and his momma sterilizing her best kitchen knife. She cut out the tumour that was pressing on her son’s heart. Not a sound came from him, but the tears – and the blood – flowed freely.

J.C. remembered – or maybe it was a dream – getting out of bed one night, lightheaded from blood loss. He found his daddy on his knees, praying on the porch.

“Lord,” said Henry, “please, take me. Please don’t take him. He’s so little. And if he goes, Mary will go, and we will all go if she goes. Please, take me.”

J.C. went over to hug his daddy.

And maybe the Lord heard, because the wound stopped bleeding.


When J.C. was 9 years old, the family moved 700 miles northwest to Ohio. Mary and Henry’s daughter Lillie had moved to Cleveland years before, and she said there was work, and houses, and a better life. Henry took two of his sons up to check it out, and then moved his whole family in 1922. They were a part of the Great Migration – the tide of African Americans leaving the southern United States for the north. Between 1915 and 1920, 65,000 men, women, and children moved from Alabama alone.

The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. It was as though James Cleveland Owens was finally coming home.

He got the name Jesse from his first day at school in Cleveland.

“What’s your name?” said the teacher.

“J.C., ma’am,” said J.C., in his soft southern accent.

“Jesse?” said the teacher.

“J.C., ma’am,” said J.C.

“Jesse?” said the teacher.

“Yes, ma’am.” said J.C.

It was at school where Jesse Owens met Coach Riley. Said Riley, “He wasn’t the fastest boy, or the best one, but he was the hardest worker. He was always the last to leave practice.”

It was Riley who taught Jesse not to run, but to float. To run as though the ground was on fire. And after such a rocky start, Jesse was built to run, as sleek as a greyhound, with the heart of a lion.


Jesse Owens followed his heart to Berlin, crushing the Aryan dreams of Hitler’s 1936 Olympiad. He set Olympic records and won 4 gold medals in the 100 m dash, the 200 m dash, the 4×100 m relay, and the long jump – a feat that stood unmatched until Carl Lewis took 4 gold medals at the Salt Lake City Games in 1984.

Jesse Owens at start of record breaking 200 meter race during the Olympic games 1936 in Berlin (photographic montage). Public domain. Available via
Jesse Owens, long jump, 1936. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R96374 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons


I told this story at my storyteller’s group on Wednesday night this week. The theme was Following your Heart, and as I write, I’m watching the Canadian women’s Olympic gold medal hockey game aganst the USA. I wanted a story that combined the heart idea with the Olympics, and when I read the anecdote of the tumour, I knew this was the right story to tell.

Weird trivia

At the Olympics, Jesse Owens was wearing handmade, leather athletic shoes made for him by Adolf Dassler.

“Adi” Dassler went on to found Adidas.

Sommerolympiade, Siegerehrung Weitsprung
Jesse Owens salutes the American flag after winning the long jump at the 1936 Summer Olympics. Naoto Tajima, Owens, Lutz Long. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-G00630 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons

Olympic Postscript

RATS! Shootouts suck.


10 things you may not know about Jesse Owens. Klein, C. (Sep 12 2013). Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from

1936 – Owens wins 4th gold medal. Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from

About Jesse Owens. Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from Jesse Owens Olympic Legend.

How Jesse Owens’ Childhood Made Him the Champion Seen in Race. Schaap, J. (Feb 19 2016). Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from Time.

Jesse Owens. Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from

Jesse Owens. Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from Wikipedia.

Jesse Owens Biography. Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from the Encyclopedia of World Biography.



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