CLEVELAND — Plans are underway to honor Cleveland resident and Olympic icon Jesse Owens with a plaza at the site of the oak tree planted in his honor at Rockefeller Park along Martin Luther King Drive in University Circle.
The conceptual design for Jesse Owens Olympic Oak Park will include new pathways, seating, signage and public art. University Circle Inc. has teamed up with local firm DERU Landscape Architecture and local artist Angelica Pozo for the art design.
The plaza will be located on Martin Luther King Drive near the intersection of East 105th Street, near the north side of Rockefeller Park Lagoon.
Public art installations will include four memorial markers and a podium seat wall that evokes the idea of a winner’s stand, presumably similar to the stand that Owens stood on after winning his medals at the Olympics.
The memorial markers will be installed along the 200-meter loop around the tree. The wall will highlight his life before the Olympics, Olympic history, and post-Olympic experience while acknowledging his accomplishments as well as his struggles against racism.
History of the legacy oak trees
Rockefeller Plaza is the site of the recently planted Jesse Owens oak tree. The tree is genetically identical to one of the four trees awarded to the track and field star for his four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Owens was presented with four English oak saplings, which were planted behind James Ford Rhodes High School, East Tech High School, Ohio State University and the front yard of the house he bought his parents in Cleveland.
As a Black competitor in Nazi Germany, his success in setting or equaling nine Olympic records and setting three world records disproved Adolf Hitler’s idea of Aryan supremacy.
Arborists at Holden Arboretum used the original Owens oak tree planted at Rhodes High School, which is the only confirmed location of one of these legacy trees, to propagate a genetically identical tree that was planted on Arbor Day 2021.
Despite his accomplishments in the Olympics, Owens faced racism at home and was not invited to the White House after the 1936 Olympics. He was honored at a celebration at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, but he was required to take a freight elevator to reach the event.
He was welcomed home with a parade in Cleveland, famously inspiring future Olympian Harrison Dillard with a wink and a wave.
He briefly worked as a playground instructor for youth in Cleveland and ultimately became the playground director with the Cleveland Parks and Recreation Department, which is why Rockefeller Park is a fitting choice for the tree and the plaza. It’s a popular spot for recreation, including for local fisherman and features a playground and the adjacent Judge Jean Murrell Capers Courts, which continues the park tradition started by Forest City Tennis Club, the nation’s oldest Black tennis club.
The community is asked to weigh in on the podium seat wall. Community feedback is encouraged, and residents are asked to share responses to “What are your dreams?” and “What are you invisible battles?”
Pozo will use the responses to these questions and etch them onto mosaic titles that will decorate the podium seat wall.
Click here to provide feedback on the project.
RELATED: Legacy of Jesse Owens' Olympic oak tree lives on with propagated sapling taking root at Rockefeller Park Lagoon
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