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Bullet: Alabama’s Jesse Owens

by Z.M. Jack

 
 
 

On an otherwise quiet Sunday enthusiasts gather in the North Alabama hamlet of Oakville, birthplace of Jesse Owens, to witness the unveiling of a roadside historical marker to the runner known as the “Buckeye Bullet.” 

Buckeye Bullet because, from the age of nine years old, Jesse Owens grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, eventually attending Ohio State -- far from the Lawrence County Seat of Moulton, Alabama, where, at the local McDonald's, farmers in bib overalls order Big Macs, hold everything minus cheese and ketchup. But, for the folks gathered on this windy, September day at the Jesse Owens Memorial Park and Visitor Center, Owens will always be a native son, their “son of a sharecropper” who earned gold four times in the 1936 “Nazi Games.” 

In Lawrence County, the preference is for the underdog.  The pediment above the courthouse reminds, “Justice must be observed even to the lowest.”  Unfortunately, for the man who is, arguably, Alabama¹s most internationally-acclaimed native, local justice has been a long time in coming. 

On September 12, 1913, the day that Mary Emma Owens gave birth to James Cleveland Owens (nickname, Jesse), her tenth and final child -- her “gift child” because, she said “he was made when he couldn’t have been made by us” -- the police blotter in the Decatur Daily reported a black man named John Alexander arrested and fined for having “offered an insult” to a white woman.  Alexander, an ice man employed by Decatur Ice and Coal, allegedly loitered too long at the home of his accuser. 

With their father, Henry Owens, Jesse and his nine siblings sharecropped cotton in the fields of Big Jim Cannon, a hard-driving but reputedly even-handed Irishman whose house still stands north of the present day museum site. 

Around 1922, Owens's mother Emma, Jesse's inspiration, his “Queen Bee,” moved the family to Cleveland where Jesse’s sister, Lily, had established a foothold.  Convinced by Lily’s dispatches and discouraged by the boll weevil and Big John Cannon’s profit margins, the Owenses added themselves to the approximately 65,000 Alabama blacks who had migrated to the North. 

Afterwards, Owens’s memory of Alabama remained riddled with blind spots. Marlene Owens Rankin, raised in Hyde Park, Illinois, remembers her father seldom mentioned the state, recalling family-specific incidents instead, most of them unpleasant --how hard, for example, his sisters had to work harvesting vegetables and scrubbing floors.  As he aged, Owens boyhood memories hardened further.  In a series of interviews granted to Barbara Moro for the Illinois Historical Library, Owens remembered “busting the furrows” behind a mule, picking a hundred pounds of cotton each day.  Late in life, the specter of his death, the landscape of it, took shape as “a long, long, long-distance race over hills and through valleys” -- a place curiously like the hills of North Alabama, the roads doubling back on themselves. 

Oakville positions itself at the beginning of a chronology that vaulted Owens to international stardom – Owens’s first steps, Owens’s mother cutting painful sores from his legs with a kitchen knife, Owens’s testing his legs in games of tag and keep-away -- stories that have become legendary, preserved not only by the sporting public but by Owens’s remaining relatives in Alabama.  Seventy-year-old Elsie Fitzgerald, significantly younger than her cousin Jesse, remembers her mom complaining of the boy’s devilish ways. 

From her office at the Jesse Owens Foundation, formed in Chicago after her father’s death, Marlene Owens Rankin confides, “We don’t really know our Alabama relatives.  There’s some on my grandmother’s side, but I can't even think of their name . . .”  While names elude her, Rankin speaks of Alabama as “the place where my father's family emanated from,” comparing her generation’s relationship with the state to an extended family -- warm but not necessarily close. 

Fletcher Owens, one such relative on hand for the plaque unveiling, spends his retirement visiting the slices of Americana--Grand Canyon, Yellowstone--that eluded him during his years in the Service.  Owens, who as a youth heard how “Jesse could outrun a horse,” admits to having lost track of his famous kin’s exploits when World War II erupted.  In that, he isn’t unusual. It would take until 1968 for broadcast technology to catch up with Owens’s fleeting performance in Berlin, as a Bud Greenspan TV special offered many Americans its first images of a badly-needed, and nearly forgotten, sports hero. 

In 1950, as the Cold War heated up, the Associated Press named Owens the “Greatest Track Athlete of the Past Half Century.”  The simultaneity of the two events did not go unnoticed by an Eisenhower administration eager to portray America as the center of worldwide democracy and civil equality.  To make the image stick, America would have to do more to improve its domestic racial climate.  Jesse Owens, one of a very few well-known, Black conservatives, fit the bill.  Owens, living in Chicago at the time, campaigned for Republican William G. Stratton for Governor of Illinois on the promise that an Illinois Athletic Commission would be formed with Owens as its head. 

In 1952, with the Russians slated to make their first Olympic appearance since the Bolshevik Revolution, the White House asked Owens to attend the Melbourne games as the President's personal representative.  When it was all over, American-Consul General in Sydney, Orray Taft, wrote in praise of Jesse’s  “warm and spontaneous” manner and his “keen appreciation for the problems of the youth” -- talents that Owens would later bring to bear in creating the ARCO Jesse Owens's Games for Boys and Girls. 

In 1968, political differences again threatened to overshadow Olympic competition.  When the International Olympic Committee announced that Apartheid South Africa would be allowed to compete, 32 African teams threatened boycott, as did their African American counterparts.  The IOC eventually reversed its decision, but black members of the U.S. Olympic teams remained indignant. 

Americans that year were seeing, for the first time, footage of Jesse Owens’s record-breaking performance in an hour-long documentary entitled “Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin.” One hundred and eighty local television stations broadcast the special.  Owens seized on the opportunity to retell his Olympic stories while making comparisons between Mexico City and Berlin.  Once again, Owens maintained, black athletes had a chance to make their statement where it mattered most: on the field. 

The essential difference between Owens and a new breed of politically-motivated athletes would be highlighted when San Jose sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists on the medal stand in Mexico City, where, to further Owens's fall from grace, Bob Beamon leapt more than 29 feet, smashing Owens's long jump record.  

In death, Jesse Owens once again proved controversial.  His passing in 1980 was immediately seized upon by Chicago media who opposed the United States’ proposed boycott of the Moscow Olympics.  David Condon of the Chicago Tribune opposed the boycott because, he argued, it would prevent black athletes from electrifying the world as Owens had done in the Œ36 Games.  Closer to home, Trustees at Ohio State University announced plans for the Jesse Owens Memorial Plaza, a 450-foot-long garden and tree-lined sidewalk leading from Stadium Drive into the rotunda around the stadium.  In an attempt to justify the 1.4 million dollar project, which would include a new synthetic track and recreation center that would bear Owens's name, supporters called Owens -- who failed to complete his degree at OSU despite repeated attempts -- one of their “most illustrious sons.” 

In Oakville, residents, led by Owens's cousin Marvin Fitzgerald, quietly began clearing a vacant half-acre lot next to the Methodist church and Masonic Lodge with intentions of adopting an obelisk in honor of the Buckeye Bullet.  Sixty-three residents signed a petition in favor of erecting the monument that read: "He inspired a world enslaved in tyranny and brought hope to his fellow man . . . from the cotton field of Oakville to the acclaim of the entire world, he made us all proud to be called Lawrence Countians." 

James Pinion, then Lawrence County Extension Agent, still isn’t clear why Therman White did what he did.  “He’s not that big of a track fan,” Pinion said.  Maybe White, who now serves as volunteer groundskeeper, envisioned it as a retirement project.  Or maybe, as Pinion suspects, he just thought it ought to be done. 

In 1991, Therman White, an Oakville native and Navy retiree looked across Country Road 81 from the undersized Jesse Owens Memorial to an adjacent field of weeds and wild onions –- Owens’s childhood home. And, to the roughly $15,000 in unused funding originally earmarked for the Jesse Owen’s Memorial Site, White added, according to Pinion, over $2,000 of his own pocket-money, buying the property outright. 

Pinion, a gentile, rail-thin native Alabamian and passionate supporter of Auburn University athletics, agreed to help White make Oakville the locus of the Jesse Owens legend. The story of how White, Pinion, and Pinion’s fellow county extension agents turned White's pastoral vision into a multi-million dollar park and museum, visitor center and sports complex, is a wholly American tale.  More than a few observers have noted the uncanny similarities between Pinion and White’s wild hare and that of Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones’ mantra in the 1989 film Field of Dreams: “If you build it they will come.” 

Indeed they have come.  From as far away as Russia and Eastern Europe.  From every state in the Union. 

A tour of the grounds shows the eternal flame, dedicated and lit by Ruth Owens, Jesse’s widow, when the Olympic committee announced a surprise rerouting of the Olympic torch through Oakville on its way to Atlanta in 1996.  Nearby, a glorious statue of Owens leaping through the Olympic rings stands so life-like that it caused Mel Walker, Owens's teammate at Ohio State University, to do a doubletake at its dedication. 

According to Pinion, the park survives on an annual $12,500 grant from the United Way and a $9,000 utilities stipend from the County. Still, the museum, built with the initial infusion of some $1.3 million, is impressive. “They just can’t believe how nice it is,” Marilyn Moats says of visitors to the brick-walled, steel-roofed structure that commands the park’s southern boundary.  The museum houses considerable Owens memorabilia, much of it donated by a willing Owens family and entities like Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), sponsor of the ARCO Jesse Owens Games and one-time owner of the Jesse Owens name.  ARCO, recently bought out by British Petroleum, has unburdened itself of much of its Owens paraphernalia.  On the day of the Lawrence County Historical Society dedication, ARCO hand-me-downs -- oil paintings showing Owens in his various roles as athlete, emissary and businessman -- line the perimeter of Pinion¹s office, waiting to be hung. 

Therman White, clad in overalls and wearing a John Deere cap, leaves the porch to erect the new plaque.  Pinion, offering rides from the visitor's center to the museum at the top of the hill, hopes that the park’s designation as a historical site will entitle it to a sign on nearby I-65. 

As White and a small cadre of helpers disappear into the road ditch in a drizzle, the crowd moves to the museum, where they gather at a small theater showing Bud Greenspan’s “Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin,” -- the hour-long special which first revealed Owens¹s Olympic achievements to a broader American viewing audience.  The group of about ten people gathered around the screen includes a proud Elsie Fitzgerald, who says it would have been nice for her cousin to see this moment.  “God bless this park,” she says, remembering how, on his rare, whirlwind trips through the South, she would sometimes get to see her cousin Jesse at the nearby Decatur Hotel.

Whistling quietly at footage of Owens’s gazelle-like grace, the small but reverent crowd agrees with the religiosity of Elsie’s sentiments.  Pinion, now retired from county extension and working for a local chicken processor, watches proudly from behind.  Like so many others, he donates his time.  When the movie reel shows blond German long jumper Lutz Long embracing Jesse Owens under the disapproving stare of Adolf Hitler, Pinion confides that he’d still like to bring Lutz Long’s son to Oakville, let him see for himself how Alabama has honored its native son.


Jesse Owens Museum and Park
http://www.jesseowensmuseum.com
 
Jesse Owens Foundation
http://www.jesse-owens.org

Z. M. Jack is Assistant Professor of English and Journalism Program Coordinator at Tusculum College in Greeneville, Tennessee. Previously, he has worked as an editor for a community newspaper in Iowa. He has free-lanced for such newspapers as the Ames Tribune and the Iowa State Daily and has contributed to the University of Alabama's Alabama Heritage, Binghamton University's To the Quick, and the Alabama Writers Forum's First Draft.

Contact Z. M. Jack at:  zjack@xtn.net


Jesse Owens Monument photo used with permission of the Jesse Owens Museum.

© 2002,  Z. M. Jack, All Rights Reserved