Paying a fitting tribute to the greatest track and field athlete of all time, the Jesse Owens Memorial Park was dedicated in grand fashion June 29, 1996, with the arrival of the Olympic torch in route to the XXVI Olympic games in Atlanta, Georgia. Sixty years had passed since Owens raced to four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, and many believed the tribute was well overdue.
More than 10,000 people from all over the country attended the dedication ceremony. Many of Owens’ family attended, including Jesse’s wife, Ruth and their three daughters. The trip was Ruth’s first to her husband’s birthplace. Other notable figures attending included Alabama Governor Fob James as well as Czechoslovakian-born Thea Petschek Lervolino, who watched Owens race at the 1936 Olympics.
Stuart Owen Rankin (below), Jesse’s grandson, carried the Olympic torch into the park to the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd. He paused shortly to hug his grandmother. The day was filled with symbolic moments and sweet remembrances of a man who became a living legend in his own time.
One of the greatest moments of the day was the unveiling of the Jesse Owens statue in the Gold Medallion Court located outside the park’s museum. The statue depicts Owens bursting through the Olympic rings. Birmingham sculptor, Branko Medenica, designed the statue to represent all the barriers that Owens broke in becoming an Olympic hero including racial and economic barriers. Owens also broke world records and destroyed Hitler’s claim of Aryan supremacy in the 1936 Olympic games. The statue’s inscription reads: “Athlete and humanitarian whose inspiration personifies the spirit and promise of America.” During the dedication ceremony Mrs. Owens lit the eternal flame on the replica.
The ceremony was concluded with James Pinion of Moulton, carrying the torch out of the park, to continue its trip to Atlanta. Pinion was designated this honor by the Olympic Torch Relay Committee. Fittingly, the Committee bent the rules and gave special permission for Therman White of Oakville, to serve as an Olympic Torch Escort, which allowed him to assist Pinion in carrying the torch through the park they worked so hard to fund and develop.