The Presidential Medal of Freedom bestowed Jesse Owens by President Gerald Ford in 1976 was sold for $128,617 at an auction on Sunday, seven days before the observance of his 38th death anniversary.
The amount paid by an unidentified buyer sold by SCP Auctions, was, the biggest for the medal, which along with the Congressional Gold Medal award is the highest honor accorded on a civilian in the United States.
Owens’ three daughters with wife Ruth, according to an ESPN report, consigned both the Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal, which are unprecedented. The Congressional Gold Medal, given to Owens posthumously by President George Bush in 1990, was sold for $85,592.
Owens, winner of four gold medals in track and field gold at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin – the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints and long jump, all in record times, and helped, too, the U. S. 4 x 00-meter relay team to the gold, passed away on March 31, 1980 at age 66.
In awarding the Presidential Medal President Ford said Owens “personally achieved what no other statesmen, journalist or general achieved at that time — he forced Hitler to leave the stadium rather than acknowledge the superb victories of a black American.”
President Ford was referring German leader Adolf Hitler, who in hosting the Summer Games, was expecting the occasion to be a showcase of Aryan supremacy.
Hitler lambasted America for including black athletes on its Olympic roster. But it was the African-American participants who helped cement America’s success at the Olympic Games.
In all, the United States won 11 gold medals, six of them by black athletes with Owens easily the most dominant American competitor. .
One of Owens’ daughters, Marlene Owens Rankin, told ESPN that parting with the awards was a tough decision clarifying though that the funds generated would be passed on to Owens’ five grandchildren.
“We are three elderly ladies, and when we are gone, how do you divide the Presidential Medal of Freedom into five pieces?” Rankin said. “Selling it was the best way of “sharing with our children their grandfather’s legacy.”
While Owens helped the U.S. triumph at the games, his return home was not met with the kind of fanfare expect for a coming home hero. President Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to meet with Owens and congratulate him.
He wouldn’t be properly recognized until 1976, when Ford awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus,” he lamented. “I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted.”
“I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either,” he added.