Jesse Owens’ story is 80 years old. But his legacy is as inspiring today as it was in 1936.
Owens’ story is in the national spotlight this month, as the feature film Race hits theaters nationwide. The movie is a chance for the nation to get to know the Ohio State legend nicknamed the “Buckeye Bullet” for his track-star prowess — and celebrated for inspiring activism and a legacy of education.
Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics against the backdrop of an Adolf Hitler regime. As the world watched, those victories shattered Hitler’s claims of racial supremacy.
Owens was born in Alabama as the 10th child of sharecroppers Henry and Mary Emma Owens; the family eventually moved to Cleveland for greater opportunities. Owens broke world records in track and field as a high school student and as a student-athlete at Ohio State.
Before the movie's release, a red-carpet screening of Race gave the Ohio State community a sneak peak of how one of the greatest Buckeye legends was portrayed on screen. On campus, the day of the screening was a moment for the community to reflect on and discuss Owens’ legacy.
Robert Bennett III, who holds a dual appointment at Ohio State’s Bell National Resource Center on the African American Male and Office of International Affairs, considers Owens’ legacy one of education. Owens’ daughter Marlene Owens Rankin graduated from Ohio State with a degree in social work; in 1961, she became the university’s first African American homecoming queen. Jesse Owens also established the Jesse Owens Foundation, which supports students who express the courage to overcome personal, family or social conditions to achieve their future leadership potential.
Before the red-carpet screening, Bennett led a moderated panel discussion that included Owens’ daughters, Owens Rankin and Gloria Owens Hemphill, and Stephan James, the actor who played Jesse Owens in the film.
After the panel, student Brooklyn McDaniels thanked the Owens sisters for returning to campus to share their father’s legacy with students. “I feel like I touched a piece of history," McDaniels said.
During United Black World Month, it was a chance for Ohio State students to discuss the struggles Owens faced and consider what his legacy means in today’s world.
“It was inspirational to see what Jesse went through in overcoming those different struggles and hurdles to be triumphant,” said Armani Hrobowski, an electrical engineering major. “I knew that he had to prove that he could be triumphant against the Aryan race. But I didn’t know all of the different struggles he went through and how he overcame that to succeed.”
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The Jesse Owens Collection
Many artifacts from the university’s Jesse Owens Collection are on display in the Thompson Library, 1858 Neil Ave. Mall. The collection includes papers, photographs and artifacts that pertain to Owens’ athletic career, his business interests, his philanthropic activities and his personal life.