An Olympian Effort: The Story of Jesse Owens in Library of Congress Primary Sources

The opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics is just around the corner. How will you include primary sources about the Olympics in your classroom?

One way is to highlight a historic Olympian in lessons.

The 1936 Olympics were in Berlin, Germany, during the rule of Adolf Hitler. Hitler hoped to use the Olympics to show the superior prowess of the German athletes. He wanted to deny Jewish and black athletes the right to participate in the Olympics.

Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens was a successful track and field athlete at Ohio State University and held several world records. He, along with several other African-American athletes, was selected for the United States Olympic team. Though the International Olympic Committee finally forced the Germans to allow all those who were qualified to participate, many in the United States suggested that Owens and other athletes should boycott the games.

Walter White, the director of the NAACP, was one of those who spoke out against Owens’ participation. In a 1936 letter that was never sent to Owens, White wrote that, “It is my firm conviction that the issue of participation in the 1936 Olympics, if held in Germany under the present regime, transcends all other issues. Participation by American athletes, and especially by those of our own race which has suffered more than any other from American race hatred, would, I firmly believe, do irreparable harm.”

Letter from Walter White to Jesse Owens 12/4/1935

A life history written as part of the Federal Writer’s Project quotes Owens as responding to critics, “After all, since we are all Americans, Negroes should have a chance in every sport. Certainly the showing of Negroes in track events shows that if they have half a chance, they produce the goods”.

Jesse Owens won four Olympic medals in the 1936 Olympics, confirming that he could “produce the goods.” Others have won as many medals, but few experienced the kind of pressure Owens did.

  • Have students debate whether Jesse Owens should have gone to the Olympics. One side can represent Owens and the other side Walter White. What reasons would they use to defend their point of view?
  • Have students consider what the reaction would have been if Owens had not won any medals. Would that have strengthened White’s argument that Owens should not have gone?
  • Ask students why they think Walter White never sent the letter? What do they think would have happened if White had sent the letter?
  • Students can compare Owens’ life history  with another life history from the project. Do they notice any similarities or differences with other interviews from the collection? What more do they want to know after reading Owens’ life history?

For even more information about the Olympics you can read the Library of Congress blog , the Poetry and Literature blog and the blogs from the Prints and Photographs, Law, Performing Arts and Science reading rooms. These may lead you to even more ideas on how to feature the Olympics in classroom activities.

What resources do you use to help students learn about the Olympics and their impact in history?

Bringing Music and Primary Sources Together: A Teaching with Primary Sources Round Up

Popular songs often carry political or social messages or commentary on the events of the day. Music offers teachers a lens to explore the culture of a time and to help students understand issues of importance during that period in history. The Library of Congress archives a vast repository of sheet music and song sheets, and many of these rich primary sources are available online. Several Teaching with the Library of Congress blog entries point to music-related primary sources and ways to use them with students.

Supporting Writing with Images

Teachers agree that ease and fluency in writing come with frequent practice for a variety of purposes, whether making personal connections, analyzing information or constructing an answer to a document-based question. One way to incorporate more writing in the classroom is to create assignments using high-impact primary source images from the Library of Congress. Their real-world authenticity can rivet students’ attention, spark inquiry and draw them into a writing topic or task.

Sharing Summer Teacher Institute Discoveries

In his June 1st post celebrating the beginning of the Teaching with the Library of Congress blog’s second year of publication, Stephen Wesson pointed out that for teachers and students the Library of Congress “represents a source of discovery and learning unlike any other. Last week when I joined twenty-seven K-12 educators at the second of five 2012 Summer Teacher Institutes in Washington, D.C., I did indeed witness nonstop discovery and learning in a unique and awe-inspiring setting.