Jesse Owens Museum digital collection includes the complete archives related to the inspiration, development and operation of the Jesse Owens Park and Museum. The collection includes documents, photos, correspondence, board minutes and news articles from 1983 to the present.
In Jesse’s book, I Have Changed, Owens explains how he felt about going to Germany for the “Nazi Olympics” and Hitler’s efforts to use The Games as a showcase for ‘Aryan’ superiority. He stated that he and his fellow American athletes weren’t really enemies. For Owens, the trip to Germany was not his first experience with racism.
But Hitler—he was something else. No one with a tinge of red, white and blue doubted for a second that he was Satan in disguise. Not that I was too involved with Hitler in the beginning. I’d spent my whole life watching my father and mother and older brothers and sisters trying to escape their own kind of Hitler, first in Alabama and then in Cleveland, and all I wanted now was my chance to run as fast and jump as far as I could so I’d never have to look back….” If I could just win those gold medals, I said to myself, the Hitler’s of the world would have no more meaning for me. For anyone, maybe.
Owens, Jesse, and Paul Neimark. I Have Changed. New York: Morrow, 1972
Unfortunately it took fifty years for Jesse’s birth community to stop looking back.
One day in 1991 a quiet, unassuming man named Therman White, stood on Country Road 203 looking onto an adjacent field of weeds and wild onions. Mr. White knew it was time. He went to see James Pinion, Auburn University Extension Agent, a man he had never met but knew could get things done. A man he hoped would help him do the right thing by Jesse Owens – something that should have been done long ago. White walked into Pinions’ office and asked him to help turn the 17.5-acre pasture into a park in Owens’ honor. Pinion accepted the challenge.
With only $15,000 in unused funding and $2,500 of White’s own pocket money and a remote pasture, these two men worked to enlist support for turning dream into reality. This was a huge challenge and James and Therman didn’t have much time. The entire world would be looking and watching in their direction as the Summer Games in Atlanta approached. The first order of business was to get the African-American community on board. So the two of them set out to spread the word. James and Therman never looked back or took one day of rest. The dream would die if they did. It was up to them to lead fund-raising and get the community behind the park to turn dream into reality. Leaning on each other for strength, they plowed forward through lingering prejudice, low funding and few resources and achieve the unthinkable.
“We all have dreams. In order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline and effort.” ~ Jesse Owens
With numerous obstacles along the way (including physical sabotage of the park and the county threatening not to pay the power bill), sometimes it felt as if the whole dream would fall apart. But James and Therman would not abandon each other or their dreams. These two managed to lead the effort to raise $1.5 million dollars, persuade Olympic officials to re-route the Olympic torch through Oakville on its way to Atlanta, and build a park in the middle of nowhere, a park befitting an Olympic hero. This was not an easy feat. A community was brought together like it had never been before. Volunteers emerged to assist in the effort and take on the challenge. Couples like Curtis and Joyce Cole who accepted the challenge of moving and restoring the birth home replica and who continue today as volunteer park directors.
Jesse Owens would have been proud of community efforts. He would be proud that thousands of visitors continue to come from all 50 states and more than 25 countries around the world.
Twenty-two years later, on any given day you can still find James and Therman, at the park, working with dedication toward the park and museum’s continued success. In this 22 years of dedication, these two have given so much of themselves emotionally, physically and spiritually that the park is a part them now. And they have gone unpaid through it all which is just how they want it. Many have compared Pinion and White’s wild hare to that of Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones’ motto in the 1989 film Field of Dreams: “If you build it they will come.” And they have. This amazing story of how White and Pinion turned this dream into a long-overdue reality, in a historically racially charged area (and many would say it still is) is a testament to what determined souls can overcome to see their dreams accomplished.