Jesse Owens Playground
Jesse Owens Playground
Jesse Owens (1913-1980) was one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. Born James Cleveland Owens on September 12, 1913 in Oakville, Alabama, and he changed his name when a grade school teacher mistook his initials “J.C.” for the name “Jesse.” The youngest child of sharecroppers, Owens and his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1922, part of the massive African-American exodus from the rural South. Under the guidance of Charles Riley, a junior high school teacher, Owens developed his athletic talents and took them to Cleveland East Tech High School. He was unbeatable at Cleveland East, but he was more than a high school star. He tied a world record in 1933, running a 9.4-second 100-yard dash at the National High School Championships. Jesse Owens had drawn the attention of a nation, and it would never leave him for the rest of his life.
Owens went on to Ohio State University, running track on a scholarship as a Buckeye. He won eight National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) titles, but he gave his greatest performance at the 1935 Big Ten Conference Championships. Owens set or tied four world records: the 100-yard dash, the 220-yard dash, the 220-yard low hurdles, and the long jump. He went to the brand new Parks stadium on Randall’s Island and won the Olympic trials. Jesse Owens, already famous, was soon to become a legend.
In 1936, Germany hosted the Olympic Games in Berlin. Adolph Hitler had been leading Germany for three years, and was using his racial policies to sterilize the physically and mentally handicapped, and to restrict Jews from universities and government jobs. These laws were the foreshadowing of the Holocaust, and they were based on the Aryan ideal of racial purity that was central to Nazi philosophy. Hitler saw the Berlin Olympics as the perfect stage to demonstrate German strength and Aryan superiority to the world. This was the moment Jesse Owens stepped into, and his extraordinary prowess propelled him into history.
He won four gold medals. He set Olympic records in the 200-meter dash and long jump, tied a world record in the 100-meter dash, and was part of the world record-breaking 4x100-yard relay team. Germany won more medals than any other country, but it was Owens that the world applauded. The sharecroppers’ son had shown up a dictator, and his achievements, modesty, and patriotism made him a hero in the United States. The entire track team was welcomed home on September 3, 1936, with a tickertape parade through lower Manhattan’s “Canyon of Heroes.” Owens was in and out of personal prosperity for the rest of his life, but he remained a national hero and an African-American icon. He died of cancer on March 31, 1980, leaving behind his wife, Ruth Solomon, and their three daughters.
Jesse Owens Playground, on Stuyvesant and Lafayette Avenues, adjoins P.S. 26 and J.H.S. 57. The city acquired this land by condemnation in 1952, and the playground originally included a school garden, a play area with a sandpit and see-saws, a softball diamond, a skating area, a wading pool, swings, basketball and handball courts, and a comfort station, which was rehabilitated in 1970. In 1991, Mayor Giuliani allocated $57,000 to replace the safety surfacing, and provided funds again in 1998 to reconstruct the facility completely. The garden, sandpit and seesaws were removed, a painted potsy game was added, as was a circular spray shower, play equipment and swings; the playground also includes a mini-pool. Parks named this playground for Jesse Owens on June 18, 1987, and jointly operates the facility with the Board of Education.
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