Paying a fitting tribute to the greatest track and field athlete of all time, the Jesse Owens Memorial Park was dedicated in grand fashion June 29, 1996, with the arrival of the Olympic torch in route to the XXVI Olympic games in Atlanta, Georgia. Sixty years had passed since Owens raced to four gold medals at the Olympic games in Berlin, and many believed the tribute was well overdue.
More than 10,000 people from all over the country attended the dedication ceremony. Many members of the Owens’ family attended, including Jesse’s wife, Ruth and three daughters. The trip was her first to her husband’s birthplace. Other notable figures included Alabama Gov. Fob James and Czechoslovakian-born Thea Petschek Iervolino, who watched Owens race at the 1936 Olympics.
Stuart Owen Rankin, Jesse’s grandson, carried the Olympic torch into the park to the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd. He paused shortly to hug his grandmother. The day was filled with symbolic moments and sweet remembrances of a man who became a living legend in his own time.
One of the greatest moments of the day was the unveiling of the Jesse Owens statue in the Gold Medallion Court located just outside the park’s museum. The statue depicts Owens bursting through the Olympic rings. Birmingham sculptor, Branko Medenica, designed the statue to represent all the barriers that Owens broke in becoming an Olympic hero including racial and economic barriers. Owens also broke world records and destroyed Hitler’s claim of Aryan supremacy in the 1936 Olympic games. The statue’s inscription reads: “Athlete and humanitarian whose inspiration personifies the spirit and promise of America.”
During the dedication ceremony Mrs. Owens also lit an eternal flame in the park’s 1936 Torch Replica. This torch is a replica of torches carried in the 1936 Olympic torch relay.
The ceremony was concluded with Jesse Owens Memorial Park Board member James Pinion of Moulton, AL. carrying the torch out of the park to continue its trip to Atlanta. Pinion was designated this honor by the Olympic Torch Committee. Fittingly, the Committee chose Thurman White of Oakville, Alabama as an Olympic Torch Escort giving special permission for White to assist Pinion in carrying the torch out of the park they worked so hard to fund and develop.