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Jesse Owens, Cleveland's Olympic icon, to be honored with plaza at Rockefeller Park

Jesse Owens Proposal.jpg
Posted at 12:19 PM, Jan 21, 2022

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.

Jesse Owens Location Map.jpg
Jesse Owens Olympics Oak Plaza.

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.

Jesse Owens Proposal.jpg
Jesse Owens Olympics Oak Plaza.

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.

Jesse Owens
Happy over his double victory, Jesse Owens of Cleveland is shown with the Olympic Oaks in Berlin on August 8, 1936, given to each winner, which he won by capturing for the American first honors in the 100-meter dash and running broad jump. (AP Photo)

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.

1936 Berlin Games Unlikely Allies
FILE - In this Aug. 11, 1936, file photo, America's Jesse Owens, center, salutes during the presentation of his gold medal for the long jump, after defeating Nazi Germany's Lutz Long, right, during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Naoto Tajima of Japan, left, placed third. The performance of Jesse Owens will be honored in the stadium where he won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games when the world championships are held in Berlin this month. (AP Photo/File)

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.

Jesse Owens, Tris Speaker, Harold Mosier; Minnie Ruth Owens, Minnie Ruth Solomon, Harold Burton
Jesse Owens waves to the crowd as he rides downtown from the railroad station in Cleveland, Ohio, Aug. 26, 1936. Owens received a hero's welcome as he returned home from his triumphs at the Olympic Games in Berlin. Left to right are: Tris Speaker, baseball immortal; Lieut. Gov. Harold Mosier; Minnie Ruth Owens, Jesse's wife; Jesse and Mayor Harold Burton. (AP Photo)

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.

Community Feedback
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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