Very sincerely yours, Jesse Owens
February 15, 2022
For Black History Month, I’m unpacking a bit of history from the memorabilia in my closet, a program from a sports banquet and a personal letter to my father Don Swan, both signed by Jesse Owens.
When we lived in Columbus, Ohio in the 1950s, Dad belonged to the local athletic club, the Touchdown Club. This outfit was known for its annual awards dinner where, as the club website says, “the guest list read like a virtual Who’s Who of American sports legends” including Jim Brown, Bronko Nagurski, Bobby Layne, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Sandy Koufax. That’s Koufax autographing a program for Don (second from right).
When the club honored Owens as “Track Star of the Century” in 1960, Don was his host. This meant picking him up at the airport, driving him around, and generally making sure he had everything he needed.
You probably know Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, smashing Hitler’s racist propaganda about Aryan supremacy (yet President Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t invite him to the White House). You might not know that because he left a post-Games exhibition tour of Europe to return home and take up some endorsement offers, the Amateur Athletic Union suspended him, ending his career.
For years, Owens struggled to earn a living, at one point declaring bankruptcy, and was working for the Illinois Youth Commission when he came to Columbus for the banquet. The following week, he sent Don a letter that read: Just a note of thanks to express my appreciation to you for your kindness — your time, your patience and your guidance. May I remind you that no one ever had a finer host.
I certainly hope that our paths will again cross, and in the meantime, may God bless and protect you and continue to give you understanding and guidance, and that you may continue to have success during the balance of your life.
Though it’s not part of his legacy as an athlete, the letter tells us that in spite of everything he’d been through, Jesse Owens the man was generous and gracious toward others. It also reminds me that my dad loved people and how he and my mother, who once lived down the street from a former enslaved man, did not judge anyone by their skin. That’s the legacy I’m grateful for.