Olympic athlete Jesse Owens’ Cleveland legacy was preserved on Wednesday, Oct. 12, when representatives with Holden Forests & Gardens gathered at James Ford Rhodes High School to plant a cloned Jesse Owens oak tree sapling.
The original tree was given to Owens after the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany and planted 85 years ago. The new tree is a clone of the tree planted in 1937 at the school where Owens practiced track—as a symbol of athletic and cultural triumph.
“It was a beautiful day to witness the students, along with Holden’s Tree Corps, planting this special tree,” says Margaret Thresher, Holden Forests & Gardens vice president of public relations and marketing. “A living monument keeps history’s lessons alive, relevant and a part of the community conversation."
Owens, who was dubbed the best track star of the 20th Century in 1950 by sportswriters, won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany, and brought home four oak trees corresponding to the medals he earned in the 100-meter sprint, the 200-meter sprint, the running broad jump, and the 400-meter relay.
The Rhodes High oak was the last known survivor.
Tyrone Owens, Jesse Owens’ cousin, attended the planting, as well as Cleveland Ward 13 Councilperson Kris Harsh; Cleveland Neighborhood Progress (CNP) chief of staff & operations Jeff Verespej; Holden president and CEO Jill Koski; Rhodes School of Environmental Studies principal Tara Drouhard; and Lucas Reeve, executive director of Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation (OBCDC).
In 1937, Owens’ four trees were planted at Rhodes High, East Tech High, Ohio State University, and the yard of the Cleveland house that Owens bought for his parents.
Last year, the original Rhodes oak was coming to the end of its natural life and did not return to bloom this year, says Thresher, despite years of intense stewardship from Holden, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD), and OBCDC.
In February 2017 Bartlett Tree Experts contacted Holden Forests & Gardens for assistance with cloning the surviving Owens oak tree. Grafting, a skilled form of propagation commonly used for trees, was chosen to preserve the genetic identity of the new duplicate trees. Klyn Nurseries in Perry agreed to do the grafting.
A small stem taken from the tree at the high school was grafted on to the rootstock of the same species of European oak, which results in trees that are genetically identical to the parent.
Thresher says Holden and its community partners will plant up to 12 additional trees together throughout Greater Cleveland. The next plantings will take place in this spring at East Tech High School, where Jesse Owens went to school, and League Park.
The first clone was planted in May 2021 at the Rockefeller Park Lagoon. Holden Forests & Gardens Tree Corps and students from the Rhodes School of Environmental Studies planted the sapling at last week’s ceremony.
Despite being a world record holder in track and field and his achievements at the 1936 Olympics, Owens spent his entire life facing racism. CNP’s Verespej says these new Jesse Owen oaks are a reminder of the hurdles Owens overcame.
“The Jesse Owens Olympic Oak is a physical reminder of his legacy," says Verespej. “Instead of being lifted up and supported as one of our nation’s greatest heroes, he was denied opportunity. That did not stop him. He became an ambassador for our city, the community, and our nation. That's powerful."
Owens was not invited to the White House after the 1936 Olympics. But locally, Owens was welcomed home with a parade in Cleveland, famously inspiring Cleveland native and future Olympian Harrison Dillard with a wink and a wave.
"As those memories fade, and as unfortunately the original tree died, planting the grafted Oaks—which are a direct genetic replica of the original tree—is an opportunity to cast that story forward for the next 100 years," says Verespej, "and hopefully to an audience across the country and around the globe.”