A party for Jesse Owens
by Thomas C. Fleming, Jun 23, 1999
In 1935, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) track meet was held at the University of California at Berkeley for the first time.
The event was notable because it was the first year that so many black athletes competed in an intercollegiate track meet. They all came from big white universities.
Blacks could go to most colleges and universities, outside of the South. There always were a few blacks going to Harvard, Yale and other Ivy League schools. It was a long time before Princeton started admitting any, because it looked like most of the males going to Princeton came out of the Deep South, and they brought their prejudices up North with them.
In 1935, there were more blacks in college than in other years. All over the country, at the schools where you'd find a few blacks, the black alumni were growing, and they would start working on the administration to bring in more black athletes.
Jesse Owens was the stellar attraction for the Berkeley meet. He had lost only once that year in the 100-yard dash, to Eulace Peacock of Temple University, and never in the longer 220, or in the broad jump, as the long jump was called then.
Jesse Owens (1913-80) with the four gold medals he earned at the 1936 Olympics. But much of America was not ready for a black superstar, and there were no legitimate business offers to capitalize on his fame. To earn a living, he resorted to competing against racehorses in 100-yard sprints that were rigged so he would win. His career took an upturn in 1955, when he was named by the State Department as America's Ambassador of Sports, and in his later years he was in great demand as a public speaker.
Ohio State then had four or five hundred blacks enrolled on its campus at Columbus. It always had a lot of black students. Many of them came out of West Virginia and Kentucky, which were both Southern states, located right across the Ohio River. In the South, the white colleges were completely segregated; they didn't admit blacks under any circumstances.
Ohio State sent to the meet only four men: Owens, Mel Walker and Dave Albritton -- both high jumpers -- and a hurdler. Other black athletes at the meet were Claude Walton, a discus thrower from the University of Colorado; Al Threadgill, Eulace Peacock and a high jumper from Temple; and John Woodruff, the huge, middle-distance runner from the University of Pittsburgh, who was unbeatable. He would later win the 800 meters in the Olympics.
Of course, all of the black community in the San Francisco Bay Area who had interest in track -- mostly males -- attended the two-day event. I went up there on the campus to look at the guys when they were working out, and met them. I was a pledge in Alpha Phi Alpha, a black fraternity, and the brothers were entertaining a lot of these guys who were fraternity members from different schools.
I knew a family in Berkeley named Gibson that had three attractive daughters -- Lois, Thelma and Audrey Gibson. Lois was a podiatrist, who had an office in the Monterey Peninsula; she might have been the first black woman to graduate from the School of Podiatric Medicine in San Francisco. Thelma was a registered nurse, and Audrey was still a college student.
Audrey knew I had met all the athletes, so she asked if I could persuade some of the track stars to come to the Gibson home. I got busy, and Audrey invited some other young ladies over to meet the visitors. About six of the track greats, including Jesse Owens, Johnny Woodruff and Claude Walton attended. We had a great party, a sort of post-track meet affair.
Jess mixed with everybody, and seemed to be a very modest guy. He was famous, because he had already set a lot of world records in track. He would compete in four different events, and come in first almost all the time. At the Berkeley meet, Jess took four first places. The University of Southern California won the meet, because they had a lot of second and third places.
The American track team for the Berlin Olympics of 1936 had 12 blacks, which was the most there had been until then. Their exploits were constantly written about in the media.
After Jesse came up with four gold medals, he dropped out of college with one year to go. I guess he needed the money badly, because he was married, and his wife had started having babies. Had he graduated from Ohio State, as popular was he was, I think he would have eventually become a track coach there.
When Jesse came back home, nobody offered him a job, so he finally let old "Bojangles" Robinson, the black tap dancer, talk him into racing a race horse. The newspapers printed it up so much, about the world's fastest human. It drew a lot of curious people. We all got disgusted because we thought Bill Robinson wanted to take advantage of the immense popularity Jesse had gained.
Track stars today make a lot of money. Then they were truly amateurs. College athletes didn't get full scholarships; they were given jobs, so they could work for their tuition. And the United States government didn't give them anything.
But as these sports began drawing big crowds to come out to see them, the manufacturers of sporting goods started slipping these guys money at the back door. And the U.S. authorities looked at what some of the European teams were doing: they put their athletes on regular salaries, and let them make a career out of it. So the Amateur Athletic Union finally had to change.
Copyright © 1999 by Thomas Fleming and Max Millard.
Produced exclusively for the Columbus Free Press, this column is edited by Max Millard, who has conducted over 100 hours of interviews with Fleming, and blends Fleming's spoken words with his writings. Born in 1907, Fleming is the founding editor of the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's oldest weekly black newspaper. Fleming's 100-page book, Black Life in the Sacramento Valley 1850-1934, is available for $7 plus $2 postage. Send request to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Max Millard, 1312 Jackson St #21, San Francisco CA 94109.
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