James Cleveland Owens is born in Oakville, Alabama. The tenth child of Henry and Emma Owens, JC has six brothers: Prentice, Johnson, Henry, Ernest, Quincy, and Sylvester, and three sisters: Ida, Josephine and Lillie.
Like thousands of black families throughout the South, the Owens are sharecroppers. This means that a local landowner allows them to live on the property and use the farm equipment in exchange for their hard work and half a season’s crop from the land they farm. The Owens sell the remaining half of the crop and with the little bit of money, buy clothing and essentials.
JC is a small and sickly child and gives his parents fits. It is a trial to nurse him through one cold winter after another, especially since his father, Henry, cannot afford to buy any medicine or pay a doctor. Little JC is wrapped in soft cotton feed sacks in front of the stove. He coughs and sweats and cries, sick with pneumonia for weeks at a time. As if that is not enough, terrifying boils appear on JC’s chest and legs. His father has to hold the crying child while his mother practices surgery in her own home, carving the boils out of his flesh with a red-hot kitchen knife. Through sheer will and the determination of his long-suffering parents, JC somehow survives these brushes with death. By the age of six he is well enough to walk the nine miles to school with his brothers and sisters.
School amounts to a one-room shack that doubles on Sundays as the Baptist church for the blacks of the area. The teacher is anybody who has the time and inclination to teach. During spring planting at harvest time, students work the fields instead of arithmetic problems. In spite of all the drawbacks and interruptions, JC learns to read and write.
And despite the hard times there is time for play. It is in the low hills of Alabama where JC first begins to run. He recalls that even though he was thin and sickly, ‘I always loved running. I wasn’t very good at it, but I loved it because it was something you could do all by yourself, and under your own power. You could go any direction, as fast or as slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.”