A living artifact from America’s greatest Olympic athlete, Jesse Owens, returns to its roots on Thursday
CLEVELAND, Dec. 5 – Jesse Owens, the track and field superstar who forever smashed Adolf Hitler’s horrific concept of Aryan supremacy at the 1936 Olympics, was raised in two places.
Owens was born in Danville, Alabama, and for the first eight-plus years of his life, Owens, his parents and his siblings barely eked out a subsistence as sharecroppers in adjacent Oakville. Rural Alabama sharecropping meant long hours of back-breaking labor for Owens’ father, Henry, and the elder sons in the family followed suit.
Like hundreds of thousands before and millions afterwards, the Owens family decided to come north – to Cleveland in their case – for greater economic opportunity and more freedom as part of what later became known as the Great Migration. Henry and Emma Owens transplanted their lives, their fortune, and committed themselves and their children’s future to Cleveland. Selling all their possessions, they bought one-way rail tickets and departed Oakville in 1922.
The family found a better life up north. It was also in Cleveland that young Jesse, under the teaching and coaching of Charles Riley, learned to run competitively and won his first races at Fairmount Junior High. It was at Cleveland East Tech that Owens rocketed to national prominence in track and field, breaking national high school records and helping East Tech to state titles in 1932 and 1933.
Next, Owens began studying at and competing for the Ohio State University in Columbus. But his wife Ruth and daughter Gloria lived in Cleveland. Owens competed in track meets from California to New York, even in Canada, but came home to his wife, mom and dad, and family in Cleveland whenever he could.
Down south, some of the people of Alabama never forgot Jesse Owens’ roots. After Owens’ death in 1980, residents of Lawrence County (where Oakville is) began to organize a drive to commemorate America’s predominant Olympic hero and the world’s first sports superstar. A modest granite monument to Owens was erected in Oakville in 1983, but then a bigger and more prominent movement to honor Owens began. The non-profit group Jesse Owens Memorial Park was founded in 1991, and by 1992 that group’s board determined that it would put together both a memorial park and a museum dedicated to Owens.
This organization began and continued its work through the 1996 Summer Olympics, held 200 miles away in Atlanta. Members of the Board convinced the Atlantic Olympic Committee to re-route its Olympic Torch Relay so it would traverse Lawrence County in June 1996. Stuart Owens Rankin, Jesse’s grandson, carried the Torch into the Jesse Owens Park, which was also dedicated that day.
James Pinion, a member of the Board, was also chosen as an Olympic torchbearer in the Olympic Committee’s the 10,000 Community Heroes process. As a symbol of racial unity, the Olympic Committee allowed Board members Thurman White (who’s Black) and James Pinion (who’s White) to carry the Olympic torch together out of the Park. (See picture above.) A crowd of 10,000 people, including Owens’ widow Ruth, were present. Two years later, the Jesse Owens Museum opened in Oakville.
SEEDLINGS, SAPLINGS, MIGHTY OAKS (and controversy too)
Back in 1936, a Berlin botanic nursery suggested Adolf Hitler that Germany should present oak tree seedlings as host nation gifts to every gold medalist at the Berlin Olympics that year. Hitler agreed, and it’s believed that German Olympic Committee officials awarded about 130 English Oak (or Quercus robur) seedlings grown from in the north German district of Elba to the Olympic champions. Above is a picture of young Owens with two of his four seedlings. The terracotta pot of each was inscribed with these words, in German: “Grow to the honor of victory! Summon to further achievement!”
Of course, not all the Olympians carried their seedlings back to their home nations, and – once home – not all survived. In the television documentary “Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin,” produced 30 years after his Olympic triumphs, Owens says that one of his trees died. He added that he planted the second tree sapling at the home of his parents. The City of Cleveland documented that this tree died in the 1960s.
The third tree, Owens says, was placed on “All American Row” at the Ohio State University (OSU). But OSU has no record of that tree being planted, and OSU’s All American Row didn’t exist in the late 1930s. It is believed that an English oak tree, which was on the campus and then transplanted to a location near the university’s Thompson Library in 1948, is the tree which Owens gave to OSU. Yet without a record, there’s no way to verify it.
But details about the fourth tree are easy to confirm. Owens himself planted it at James Ford Rhodes High School on October 23, 1937. There are stories about this taking place in multiple publications in Cleveland, including the school’s newspaper, named the “Rhodes Review.” Rhodes was selected because, as the newest school and newest cinder track in Cleveland at the time, it was there that Owens trained in 1935-36 for the Berlin Olympics. So, Cleveland Board of Education officials and Owens agreed that Rhodes would be an ideal place for a tree. Below are two “Rhodes Review” newspaper accounts, from 1937 and from 1972, when Owens visited Rhodes to speak with students there and to check out his oak tree.
Similar scenarios have unfolded all over the U.S. about the oak tree artifacts. Efforts to preserve the Olympic trees have cropped up in some locations. As property ownership changed hands, some trees have been chopped down due to redevelopment. Some places have even shunned and ignored the Olympic trees due to their connection with Hitler, not realizing that the trees were gifted in recognition of the Olympians’ gold medal performance and as a sign of goodwill between nations and peoples. (See links in Sources Cited for details.)
There has never been any controversy about the tree at Rhodes, which became known as the Owens Olympic Tree. Respect for the tree and its connection to Owens and the Olympics grew as the decades passed. Various groups would visit the tree, and the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation put up a plaque there. Different companies volunteered to care for the tree in more recent years, and most recently Holden Arboretum was its caretaker.
However, the soil and physical changes at Rhodes High School weren’t kind to the Owens Olympic Tree and its roots. The football field near the tree changed, then metal and concrete stands were erected near it. The area right behind the tree was paved and used as parking, and the building itself was expanded near it. The Owens Olympic Tree died in the winter of 2021-2022.
Fortunately, one organization and one individual had the foresight to preserve Owens’ legacy in living and meaningful ways. Holden Arboretum, based in nearby Kirtland, is one of the largest arboreta and botanical gardens in the US. It chose to graft about a dozen trees from the Owens Olympic Tree. It gave one to University Circle Inc., a non-profit organization, which set aside a part of the Cleveland Botanical Garden area and planted it there at what’s known Jesse Owens Olympic Oak Park in 2021.
The second tree which Holden Arboretum donated went, appropriately enough, to Rhodes High School as a replacement for the Owens Olympic Tree. It was planted there in October 2022.
The individual dedicated to preserving and continuing the living legacy of Jesse Owens was Cleveland’s John Palmer, an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist. Palmer has been the owner of a premium landscape services company, consultant, lecturer, and Advanced Tree Risk assessor for 20 years. For the past seven years, Palmer has been collecting and growing seedlings from acorns gathered from the Owens Olympic Tree at Rhodes HS.
“Since I was not skilled in grafting, I decided to do it the old-fashioned way and just grow trees from acorns,” Palmer says. “I liken the difference between grafting and growing trees from acorns as the difference between a ‘duplicate’ and a ‘descendant.’ One is not necessarily better than the other,” he explains.
Palmer took more than 200 acorns from the Owens Olympic Tree and planted them, but many of them did not grow. He has about 25 viable ‘descendants’ growing at a private location in Northern Ohio. (Details are in the Palmer Affidavit, at the end of this story).
This summer, Palmer chose to donate two of the tree saplings. The first one will be given to the Jesse Owens Museum and Park on Thursday (12/8). The second will be given to the group Sports Legends of Cleveland, which is helping erect a monument and plaza area dedicated to Jesse Owens, Harrison Dillard, and other Olympians from Cleveland.
“I don’t consider myself to be the ‘owner of these trees. I am simply their steward,” Palmer adds. “The Jesse Owens Museum and Park was always my choice to receive the first of these saplings. It’s taken many years for the trees to become large enough to transport and successfully transplant.”
SAPLING IS HEADING BACK HOME TO OWENS’ ROOTS
Everyone longs to have roots, or connections, to their home. For the Jesse Owens Museum and Park (JOMP) and for members of the Owens family, Palmer’s donation and the planting and dedication of a descendant of the Owens Olympic Tree helps fulfill that in a living way. This will happen on Thursday, December 8, at 1 pm CST (2 pm EST) at the JOMP in Oakville, Lawrence County, Alabama. The tree will forever stand near Jesse’s birthplace as JOMP will present an English Oak Tree Planting Ceremony, with a public reception to follow.
“This is truly a full circle moment. A sapling from the original English Oak presented to my father in 1936 is coming to his place of origin,” says Marlene Owens Rankin, one of Jesse and Ruth’s three daughters. “It (the tree) represents his beginning and the launching of his life … we hope it flourishes in this special place.”
It is also a most opportune time for the planting in one other respect. This is the 100th anniversary of Jesse and the Owens family moving from Alabama to Cleveland. Owens’ three daughters are all still alive and will cherish this event. Joining in the planting will be Jesse’s granddaughters Donna Prather Williams (Chicago), Dawn Prather Hawk (Chicago) and Gina Hemphill Strachan (New York) along with Palmer (of Cleveland).
The museum’s address is 7019 County Road 203, Danville, AL, 35619. Here is its website: www.jesseowensmuseum.org
Finally, it’s noteworthy that Alabama has accomplished something which has yet to take place in Cleveland, or in Chicago, where Jesse Owens lived for more than 30 years. Neither city has yet built a major monument to the predominant track and field athlete in America and to the world’s first sports superstar, Jesse Owens. Perhaps this tree planting ceremony might spur “honor and further achievement” — as the pot containing the Olympic oak tree saplings in 1936 read -– to commemorate and honor Owens.
Editor’s Note: EyeonCleveland founder John Kerezy, associate professor at Cuyahoga Community College, is the author of this story. He’s accompanying John Palmer and the oak tree sapling to Alabama. The next story in this series will be from Alabama on December 7. The third and final story in the series will appear on December 9 or 10. You can reach Professor Kerezy at email@example.com or at 440-364-1133 (cell).
SOURCES CITED OR REVIEWED (NOT ALL WERE USED IN THIS STORY):