The Jesse Owens Memorial Park in Oakville, Lawrence County, is a museum and 20-acre park that commemorates African American Olympic and collegiate track and field superstar Jesse Owens. The Oakville native was most noted for his unprecedented performance in winning four gold medals in the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. The complex was officially dedicated on June 29, 1996, with the arrival of the official Olympic Torch on its way to Atlanta, where the 1996 Summer Olympic Games were being held.
Jesse Owens Museum Though Owens was born in Oakville and lived there until the age of nine, just two small markers honored the Olympic star in the area. In 1983, Democratic state representative Roger Dutton, a Danville native, sought and received state funds to build a monument to the famed track star to be erected at the more accessible Lawrence County Courthouse in Moulton. The Lawrence County Commission ultimately voted to install the new monument in Oakville. Local citizens, unhappy with the decision, hoped to create a more substantial tribute to Owens’s life and accomplishments. In 1991, Oakville resident Therman White approached the Lawrence County office of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) in nearby Moulton to procure land in Oakville for the project. The effort, working through Auburn University in Auburn, Lee County, raised more than $2 million for the development and construction of the proposed park. Additional fundraising efforts were halting and slow, however, until an ACES official petitioned the Olympic Torch Committee to change its route to include the proposed memorial en route to Atlanta. After the Olympic committee agreed, donations began to pour in and construction on the park was completed just a few days before the arrival of the Olympic torch.
On June 29, 1996, Owens’s grandson Stuart Owen Rankin carried the torch into the park, where Owens’s widow Ruth lit the “eternal flame” in the park’s replica of the 1936 Olympic torch, marking the official dedication of the Jesse Owens Memorial Park. More than 10,000 people attended the ceremony, including Owens’s surviving family and Alabama governor Forrest “Fob” James. Then, an eight-foot tall, one-ton bronze statue of Owens, crafted by noted Birmingham sculptor Branko Medenica, was unveiled. The statue depicts Owens bursting through the Olympic rings, thus signifying the racial and economic barriers that an Alabama sharecropper‘s son broke in winning four gold medals in white supremacist Nazi Germany.
The centerpiece of the Jesse Owens Memorial Park is the Jesse Owens Museum, which interprets the major events of his life as well as his relationships with individuals who shaped him as an athlete and a person. The museum includes two interactive kiosks that highlight Owens’s life, athletic accomplishments, and humanitarian contributions. One plays video and audio of Owens recalling his college track days at Ohio State University and his experiences in the Olympics. The other kiosk provides visitors with a broad overview of Owens’s life, including speaking tours and talks with youth and his receipt of the Roosevelt Award–the highest award given by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Jesse Owens Museum The museum is divided into three main galleries. The Jesse Owens Story Gallery recounts his life from his childhood in Oakville to his meteoric rise at Ohio State, to his participation in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The Running Gallery showcases Owens memorabilia, including replicas of his jersey and shoes, medals and trophies from his high school career, programs from the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and informational displays on the important relationships in Owens’s life. The Humanitarian Gallery focuses on his post-Olympics career, during which he became a champion of underprivileged youth in America. It highlights his time as the playground director for the Cleveland Park Board, director and board member of the Southside Boys Club, chairman of the Illinois State Athletic Commission, and State Department America’s Ambassador of Sports, through which he toured the world meeting with government and sports officials as well as disadvantaged children.
The museum also houses a small theater that shows the 1966 documentary Return to Berlin, which recounts Owens’s participation in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. The documentary includes original film footage, his recollections of the games, and footage of his trip to Berlin in the 1950s for a ceremonial run. The museum also hosts the Decatur Daily Resource Center that provides access to magazine and newspaper articles and computers to allow visitors to conduct their own research on the life of Owens. Finally, the Jesse Owens Museum includes a gift shop that sells a variety of books and DVDs about Owens’s life and accomplishments.
Jesse Owens Homestead A Welcome Center was built in 1996 and later renovated, donated, and moved to the park by the Carl Warren family. The Jesse Owens Birth Home Replica is a reconstruction of the original dogtrot home in which Owens grew up in Oakville. In it, visitors can listen to a retelling of Owens’s childhood in the home as narrated by his brother Sylvester. The park also includes a stainless-steel model of the original 1936 Berlin Olympics torch. Facilities for community use include a basketball court, baseball/softball fields, a playground, picnic tables, pavilions, and a long jump pit designed to allow visitors to see how close they can come to the star’s 1936 Olympic gold medal distance of 26 feet 5 5/16 inches.
Funding for the park comes primarily through private donations, admission fees from tours, grants, and funding through the Lawrence County Commission. Each month, hundreds of people visit the Jesse Owens Memorial Park and, in the summer, it hosts more than 1,000 visitors per month from around the world.
The complex is located at 7019 County Road 203. The Home Replica and Jesse Owens Museum are open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and Sunday from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. The park is always open for access to playgrounds, ball fields, picnic pavilions, and basketball courts. Nearby is the Oakville Indian Mounds Education Center.