Jesse Owens was born in the Oakville Community near Moulton, Alabama where yearly, an invitational cross country race is held in his honor and daily, a memorial park details his accomplishments.This black man from humble beginnings in an America then stained with racism, represented his countrymen with dignity. He claimed a victory over hate and tyranny, winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics–where Adolf Hitler pitted his “superior race” against worldwide athletes in the madman’s efforts to dominate the world.In today’s brave new world, Osama bin Laden replaces Hitler as the evil madman whose aims are frighteningly similar. But as in Owen’s day, the spirit of America is buoyed by the heroic actions of individuals, coupled with a worldwide coalition to fight a war against terror. When the people of Lawrence County speak of World War II, they remember Jesse Owens with pride, both for his accomplishments and for being a role model who spurred patriotism during that brutal and lengthy war.”What better role model than Jesse Owens to convince children that adversity can be tackled and overcome with dignity and pride,” asks Stanley Johnson, Speake High School teacher, coach and organizer of the annual Jesse Owens Cross Country Invitational.”This was our best meet ever,” Johnson said of the three-year-old event. “We hated to move it from the Jesse Owens Memorial Park this year to the Oakville Indian Museum grounds, but it was a matter of so many participants. We have grown from 24 schools the first year to 76 schools just two years later.”Coaches, parents, and officials from Alabama and nearby states cheered as 1,178 runners finished the 3.1 mile course. “Not only is Jesse Owens a bonafide Alabama hero, but he was born in this area and is the most accomplished athlete in American history,” Johnson said. “He wowed the 1936 Olympics at a time when America needed a boost. I have been directing races for more than 10 years, and when I decided to do a cross country meet here, it was Jesse Owens and no other that came to mind.”I saw this race in my mind at the very beginning, but it was a loyal, diverse and trustworthy group of people who helped make it a reality,” Johnson added.Parents, teachers, principals and friends of Lawrence County, Speak High School, East Lawrence County High School, Hatton High School, and the communities of Moulton and Oakville all showed up to help. And when the dust settled, Johnson had a meet that was the largest invitational in the state.Johnson believes running helps young people develop values and goals needed to become a winner in life. Even if not on the track, “I will coach anybody who runs,” he said, “To finish is to win.”Johnson has been inspired by those around him, naming DeWayne Key, David and Peggy Goodlett, Butch Walker, Frannie Adair and her late husband, Hoyt, as having had positive effects on a life that could have gone wrong. “I had no family, and these people have adopted me,” said the boyish looking adult. “They have nourished my faith and my confidence in working with young people.”The group supports the race, too. Walker, director at the Oakville Indian Mounds Museum, and Frannie Adair of Classical Fruits in Moulton–both tourism delights in Lawrence County–help with the practical needs of the invitational. The Goodletts, meanwhile, wait on participants and fans hand and foot during the meet. It’s the community involvement that impresses Jesse Owens’ daughter, Marlene Rankin. She directs the Jesse Owens Foundation, which provides financial assistance and support to deserving young individuals, providing them a help-up rather than a hand-out. Ms. Rankin also talked about the memorial park honoring her father.”The Jesse Owens Memorial Park is a community investment in a native son. I just think that it is such a tribute to him because so many people of assorted races worked to make that happen,” she said. “Their spirit and heart is appreciated by our family, and especially the efforts of James Pinion and Therman White who struggled to accomplish this park. It is a tribute to the community and the people who live in and near Oakville, Alabama,” she said.The Jesse Owens Foundation website may be found at www.jesseowens.com. “The foundation is a living legacy to him,” Ms. Rankin said. “We are proud to recognize him as family, as a remarkable athlete and as a wonderful man.”Jesse Owens was born James Cleveland Owens, but was dubbed Jesse when his teacher misheard “JC.””Jesse was shy and did not correct her,” so the family story goes, according to his daughter.His family (Henry and Emma Owens) left Alabama when he was eight and moved to Cleveland, Ohio in hopes of a better life, but the family remained poor. As a young student, Jesse took jobs delivering groceries, loading freight cars and working in a shoe repair shop. While in high school, a gym teacher discovered his talent for track. He was unable to participate in after-school practices because of work, but Coach Charlie Riley offered to train him in the mornings on his own time.He went on to become a track star, tying world records as a high-schooler and again as a student at Ohio State University. The United States was struggling in the early years of desegregation, and Owens was restricted to eating and sleeping in “blacks-only” establishments when traveling with the university’s track team. Occasionally a “white” hotel would allow the black athletes to stay, but they had to use the back door or the stairs instead of an elevator. With no scholarship, he worked to pay for school. He continued to blow away the competition in the 100-yard dash, 220-yard dash, 220 low hurdles, and broad jump, eventually entering the “Hitler Olympics” in 1936.He was triumphant in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash and broad jump, also winning gold as part of the 400-meter relay team. He returned to the United States with four golds and the gratitude of a nation. He ran professionally until 1948, doing intermittent public speaking before starting his own public relations firm.In 1976 he was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor bestowed on a civilian by the United States.Jesse Owens, 66, died in Tucson from complications due to cancer in 1980, but his accomplishments were not spent.James Pinion continues the story. He was “not only the most famous person to come out of this area, but the whole state of Alabama. Jesse Owens laid in state at the Washington Rotunda for 12 hours and was then flown to Chicago for burial. I know of no other Alabamian who has had that honor,” Pinion said. “He is a hero and role model for all the children of this state.”Pinion and his friend, Therman White, spearheaded the establishment of Jesse Owens Memorial Park, dedicating it in June of 1996, a ceremony which Owens’ mother, now deceased, and his family attended.Pinion and White continue fundraising for the maintenance and operation of the 20-acre, non-profit facility that is owned by the Lawrence County Commission. The facility includes a welcome center, museum, softball field, basketball court, picnic pavilions, restrooms, Jesse Owens home replica, 1936 Olympic Torch replica, and a statue of the Olympic winner.”Our 10-year plan adds an amphitheater for concerts and community events, a playground, and a track where the Jesse Owens Cross Country Invitation can be brought back to his Memorial Park,” Pinion said. “We would also like to stage a re-enactment of the 1936 Olympics as a yearly event, but we’ve run out of money.” Originally funded by grants, businesses, corporations, foundations and individuals, the park struggles to maintain its existence without state help, despite the tourist potential that has proven itself with visitors from all over the world.Therman White said the park is a proper memorial for a man who overcame poverty, racism and bigotry to become a role model for all children, white, black and otherwise. “It’s right here in the deep South for everyone to see,” he said. “A real tribute to an Alabama hero.”EDITOR’S NOTE: Visitors to Lawrence County also may wish to visit the Oakville Indian Mound Museum (http://home.hiwaay.net/~lcc/oimpm.htm). And, Frannie Adair’s Classical Fruits nursery and orchard (www.classicalfruits.com) at Moulton offers more than 700 apple cultivars, tours, restaurant, antiques and an annual festival in the orchard.Fran Sharp is a freelance writer who lives in Alabaster.
Lawrence County Pays Tribute To American Hero