An Olympic gold medal won by African-American track-and-field legend Jesse Owens is being auctioned off, the Associated Press reports.
The medal, won at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, is currently held by SCP Auctions, one of the largest auctioneers and private sellers of important sports memorabilia, and represents a significant part of African-American—and world—history. When Owens broke the world record for the 100-yard dash, it destroyed the Nazi myth of Aryan supremacy, the AP notes. The medal was obtained from the estate of one of Owens’ friends, entertainer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
Overall, Owens won four medals that year—for the 100- and 200-meter, the 400-relay and the long jump—in the games, which Nazi leader Adolf Hitler was hoping would showcase his people’s superiority.
“Almost single-handedly, Owens obliterated Hitler’s plans,” SCP Auctions partner Dan Imler told the AP. “You’ve got an African American, son of a sharecropper, grandson of slaves, who overcame these incredible circumstances and delivered a performance for the ages.”
But despite being a hero at the games, Owens still had to face segregation when he came home to the U.S., and because of limited job options, he struggled to provide for his family. For choosing to return home instead of touring with the Olympic team, he was stripped of his amateur athletic status, the AP reports.
“When they came back, the U.S. was just as it was when he left—segregated. Even though he came back an Olympic hero, he wasn’t offered opportunities that Olympic heroes of today are offered,” his now 74-year-old daughter, Marlene Owens Rankin, told the AP. “We lived well, a middle-class life. We didn’t want for much. But like many black men of that era, he struggled to provide for his family.
“The black community revered him for what he had accomplished,” she added. “Had it been an even playing field, my father and Bojangles would have been superstars.”
In an expression of solidarity, Owens gave one of his four gold medals to Robinson, the AP reported, another black person whose enormous talent was overshadowed by segregation. “They formed a friendship and also a professional relationship. Bojangles helped Owens get work in the entertainment field,” Imler said. “Owens gave him this medal out of gratitude and as a token of their friendship.”