Jesse Owens and the Nazi Olympics


By Hasan Kwame JeffriesThe Ohio State University

African American athletes were dubbed the Black Eagles and Black America expected them to soar. And soar they did with Jesse Owens’s record-setting performance winning him gold. Shamefully, it didn’t matter to white Americans. For them, he was just another Negro. And the same he was to Adolf Hitler.

An image of Jesse Owens standing at the first position stand in the Olympics, with number two and three position holders standing alongside.
In the 1936 Olympics, the Black Eagles overshadowed the track and field competitions with Jesse Owens claiming gold in the 100 meter, the long jump, and the 4-by-100 relay. (Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-G00630/Public domain)

The 1936 Olympics

The 1936 Olympics were to be held in Berlin, Germany. But there was a problem: the racist policies of the Nazi regime. The United States Olympic Committee debated boycotting the games but decided against it.

This did not resolve the issue for African Americans, who faced the dual dilemma of competing in an Olympics hosted by a blatantly racist nation, for a blatantly racist nation. In the end, 18 Black athletes, dubbed the Black Eagles, made the 10-day voyage across the Atlantic aboard a US Olympic Committee steamer, in Jim Crow accommodations.

The Black Eagles

The Black Eagles overshadowed the track and field competitions. In the 200 meter final, Mack Robinson brought home the silver medal, finishing just four-tenths of a second behind teammate Jesse Owens, who also claimed gold in the 100 meter, the long jump, and the 4-by-100 relay.

Owens, who ran track for the Ohio State University, would be the star of the games, but he wasn’t the only Black Eagle to fly high. Archie Williams won the 400 meters. John Woodruff took the 800 meters. Cornelius Johnson stood atop the podium for the high jump. And Ralph Metcalfe, who won silver in the 100 meters, joined Owens on the gold medal stand for the 4-by-100 relay. When all was said and done, African Americans won 14 medals, including 8 golds: one-third of the total haul for the US team.

This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim CrowWatch it now, on Wondrium.

“We destroyed Master-race Theory”

Striking gold in Berlin took on added meaning and importance for African American athletes. “There was very definitely a special feeling in winning the gold medal and being a black man”, said John Woodruff, the 800-meter winner. “We destroyed [Hitler’s] master-race theory”.

But not every Black athlete who traveled to Berlin got a chance to show up Adolf Hitler. US coaches didn’t allow sprinter Louise Stokes to compete, solely because she was Black. As fast as she was, she could not outrun Jim Crow.

Despite the Black Olympians’ remarkable accomplishments, next to nothing changed at home. Jesse Owens, the games’ most decorated athlete, was feted with a ticker-tape parade, but after the confetti settled, the Buckeye Bullet struggled to find gainful employment. It didn’t matter that he was an Olympic champion; to white Americans, he was just another Negro.

President’s Snub

Much has been made of Hitler refusing to greet Owens after he won gold, but President Roosevelt did the same thing. “Hitler didn’t snub me”, said Owens. “It was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram”.

More than anything else, the challenge that Black Olympians faced was the color line, which recognized bronze, but neither gold nor silver. But most Olympic sports also did not have professional opportunities. Black Olympians could not turn pro and make a living.

Joe Louis

Boxers were a notable exception. Whether Olympians or not, pugilists could earn a paycheck, especially during the ’30s and ’40s, the golden age of boxing.

Arguably the best boxer of all time, Joe Louis, fought during this time. He began boxing at age eleven and was a sensation from the start, winning 50 out of 54 amateur bouts, 43 by way of knockout. After turning pro in 1934, the ‘Brown Bomber’ won 24 straight fights, 20 by way of knockout. But in 1936, he fell to Germany’s Max Schmeling, the pride of the Nazis. He would get another shot at Schmeling two years later, when the stakes were even higher, because Hitler’s troops had started rolling through Europe.

Louis-Schmeling II was held at Yankee Stadium in front of 70,000 people. The much-anticipated rematch did not last long. The Brown Bomber controlled the center of ring from the opening bell, unleashing furious left jabs and hard straight rights that kept Schmeling on his heels. After three knockdowns in the second minute of the first round, the referee stopped the fight. Already an American champion, Louis instantly became an American hero.

A black and white photo of Ora Belle Washington holding a trophy.
Ora Belle Washington dominated the Black tennis circuit for much of the 1930s. (Image: John W. Mosely/Public domain)

Ora Belle Washington

One of the best Black women athletes, Ora Belle Washington, also played during this time. Washington dominated the Black tennis circuit for much of the 1930s. Since the United States Tennis Association had banned African Americans from playing in its tournaments, African Americans organized the American Tennis Association. The ATA, the first Black professional sports organization, started in 1916. Washington won its national championship in 1925, and then held it from 1929 through 1936.

Washington dominated another court as well—the basketball court. In the 1930s, she was the starting center for the Philadelphia Tribunes, one of the greatest women’s basketball teams of all time. The Tribunes took on all comers—white teams, Black teams, college teams, Southern teams—and usually defeated them. With Washington playing center, the Tribunes won 11 straight Women’s Colored Basketball World Championships.

Unfortunately, like other Black sportsmen, during her playing days, Washington received little recognition outside of women’s hoops circles, and even less pay. To make ends meet, she worked as a domestic.

Common Questions about Jesse Owens and the Nazi Olympics

Q: Why did the United States Olympic Committee debate boycotting the 1936 Olympics?

The 1936 Olympics were to be held in Berlin, Germany. But there was a problem: the racist policies of the Nazi regime. The United States Olympic Committee debated boycotting the games but decided against it.

Q: How many Black athletes participated in the 1936 Olympics?

Eighteen Black athletes, dubbed the Black Eagles, participated in the 1936 Olympics.

Q: How many medals did Jesse Owens win?

Jesse Owens, claimed gold in 200 meter, 100 meter, the long jump, and the 4-by-100 relay.

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