Jesse Owens was born James Cleveland Owens on September 12, 1913, in Danville, Alabama. His parents, Henry and Emma Owens, were poor sharecroppers who struggled to support their eleven children. The children had to help out the family by working as often as possible, and by the age of seven, James Cleveland was picking cotton in the fields along with everyone else. When James Cleveland, who was called J.C. by his family, was eight years old, his parents decided to move the family to Cleveland, Ohio, in hopes of finding more lucrative employment. J.C.
was enrolled in school, and on the first day the teacher asked him his name. He replied, J.C. , but the teacher interpreted this as Jesse, and the name stuck. Young Jesse worked part time jobs doing such things as delivering groceries and working at a greenhouse.
Despite being somewhat sickly, Jesse began to realize that he liked to run. The track coach at Owens school noticed his talent during gym class. He asked Owens if he would like to be on the track team, but because Jesse had to work after school, he was not able to join the team. The coach, Charlie Riley, offered to train Jesse in the morning before school, and Owens took him up on the offer. Coach Riley brought him breakfast every morning so he would keep up his strength and not get sick so often.
Owens performance in track and field improved, and at East Technical High School Owens became well known to everyone as a track star. He was popular and was elected president of the student council, even though he was one of only a few African American students at East Technical. At high school-level track meets, Owens tied the world record for the 100-yard dash twice. He was offered track scholarships to various universities, but he worried about his family. He had married Ruth Solomon at the age of sixteen and still held part-time jobs while in high school, and he did not want his wife or his parents to.