March 31, 1980 James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens, Olympic track and field athlete, died.
Owens was born September 12, 1913 in Oakville, Alabama. Owens attended Ohio State University where he won a record eight individual NCAA championships. Despite that success, he had to live off campus and was never offered a scholarship for his efforts. At the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, Owens won Gold Medals in the 100 and 200 meter races, the 4 by 100 meter relay race, and the long jump.
While in Germany, Owens was allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels as whites, a right that was denied him in the United States. After a New York ticker-tape parade in his honor, Owens had to ride the freight elevator to attend his own reception at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. After the Olympics, there were no lucrative financial offers and Owens eventually filed for bankruptcy. In the late 1960s, he began working as a U. S. “goodwill ambassador,” speaking about the importance of religion, hard work, and loyalty.
In 1970, Owens was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 1990 he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. In 1981, USA Track and Field created the Jesse Owens Award, which is annually given to the country’s top track and field athlete. The Unite States Postal Service issued commemorative postage stamps in his honor in 1990 and 1998.
In 2001, Ohio State University dedicated the Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium and there is a statue of Owens in Cleveland, Ohio. Owens published his autobiography, “Blackthink: My Life as Black Man and White Man,” in 1970.
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