Part Of The Great Migration
Jesse Owens was born in the rural hamlet of Danville in northern Alabama on September 12, 1913. He was the youngest of the ten children of Henry and Mary Emma (Fitzgerald) Owens who had survived childhood. Like most of his African-American neighbors, Henry Owens struggled to provide for his family as a sharecropper and barely managed to keep his children fed and clothed. After their daughter, Lillie, moved to Cleveland during World War I, Mary Owens encouraged her husband to move the family North to take advantage of the higher wages, steadier work, and personal freedom that their daughter had described to them. Henry Owens took two of their older sons to Cleveland after the war and found conditions promising enough to bring the rest of the family to the city around 1922.
In their decision to move North to escape the poverty, limited opportunity, and virulent and sometimes violent racism of the South, Mary and Henry Owens were part of one of the greatest movements of people in American history, a phenomenon known as the Great Migration.
Given a labor shortage in the North induced by World War I and a halt to European immigration, a massive wave of African Americans from the rural South took place to keep America's northern industries running. Between 1915 and 1920 at least 400,000 African Americans left for the North, and as many as one million joined them in the following decade. By 1920 an estimated 65,000 African Americans from Alabama alone had made the journey northward.
Life indeed was different for the Owens family in the North—so different that a fearful Mary Owens kept the drapes closed in the family's modest apartment for several months after they moved in. The family's east-side neighborhood was racially diverse and economically disadvantaged; after Henry Owens and three of the older Owens sons gained employment in local steel mills, the family nonetheless made a promising start in Cleveland. The youngest Owens enrolled in Bolton Elementary School on the East side, where he was initially placed in the first grade with students much younger than himself. After proving that he could read and write, Owens advanced to the second grade. He also took on a new name, although not by choice. Named James Cleveland at birth, Owens went by his initials "J.C." for the first several years of his life. He adopted the name by which he would become famous after his first teacher in the North failed to understand his southern drawl and put his name down as "Jesse." Too modest to correct his teacher, Owens kept the name.