It's been more than eight decades since Jesse Owens left an indelible mark on the world with his historic performance at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. His legacy continues to burn bright today, thanks to a number of people including his granddaughter, Gina Hemphill-Strachan.
The recipient of many awards herself for her work as a television producer, Hemphill-Strachan continues to speak openly of her grandfather's significance in the civil rights history. Celebrating Black History Month, she recently attended a Kings game in Sacramento and took time to sit down with Kings.com to share memories and thoughts on her grandfather's impact.
Kings.com: What is your favorite memory with your grandfather?
Hemphill-Strachan: Wow. I really don’t have a favorite memory. I actually have several of them. I was fortunate enough when I was about 12 years old, went to the Munich Olympic Games with my granddad in ’72. Certainly an amazing experience, an amazing Games. So much happened during those Games. Obviously, there was Mark Spitz and his gold medals, the USA basketball team being robbed from the gold medal, but also the Israeli athletes were murdered.
My granddad was on the US Olympic Committee at the time, and I just remember when that event happened, how completely shattered his spirit was. Because this was not the Olympic movement, this was not part of what the Olympics is. I’ll never forget him being (sad)…sobbing, just sobbing, really wondering what had happened to the Olympic moment. That was really one of the memories that stand out as really significant.
My granddad was the perfect “Never say no” kind of guy. Often times, when we were out to dinner, people recognized him. Even if he had the fork up to his mouth, ready to take a bite, and somebody recognized him and asked him for an autograph, he would oblige them.
They always had great stories to tell about him. He had an extremely engaging personality. If he met you today and had a conversation with you, two years from now if he saw you, you may come up to him and say, “Mr. Owens, I don’t know if you remember me…” (and) he’d go, “Of course I remember you! We were back in the arena in Sacramento.” Just truly a gift of someone who met so many people.
Kings.com: With all the things Jesse Owens did, what are you most proud of in his legacy?
Hemphill-Strachan: I would say the thing that makes me most proud of his legacy is the fact that he does have a legacy. At 80 years after his accomplishments in Berlin, that he’s still relevant. People still speak about him with such passion and compassion and reverence. He certainly left a mark with so many young people because he was an unofficial ambassador, traveled all over the world, speaking to so many young people, encouraging young people, training and all that.
I think the fact I often come into people and they have a Jesse Owens story. I’ll share with you one. There was many, many, many years ago I was with my grandmother, and we were at an event, and my granddad had been dead for a long time.
A young man came up to her and said: “I never had a chance in my lifetime to meet you and share this story with you. My grandfather…broke down on the side of the road. All these cars passed him by, passed him by. He was waving, and waving and waving. People kept passing him by. The one car that stopped, (was driven by) this black man. He said a black man came out of the car and started walking towards him. He was a little taken aback, he wasn’t really sure. Then he asked him if he could help him, got in the car with him, he said. He reluctantly got in the car with him (and) this man took him to the gas station, got him help, got his car on the road.”
Months later, (the young man) was sitting with his family watching TV. Somehow or another, my granddad came on TV, and this young man’s grandfather said, “Oh my God, that’s the man who helped me on the side of the road.”
I think it was his love of the human spirit is really what makes me proud of the legacy that he’s left.
Kings.com: Since your grandfather’s memorable performance at the Olympics, there have been civil rights movements, the election of our country’s first black president and other noteworthy events. What do you think your grandfather would say about the progress that has been made since he changed history in the first half of the 20th century?
Hemphill-Strachan: It’s about time. A long way to go. I think one thing my granddad was always encouraging, and there was a time he was called an Uncle Tom because of the position he took, whether it was political, whether it was social, whatever it was. I think he was always still very encouraging for his people.
He always wanted people to be the best they could be. So I think he would really be proud. Certainly, be proud of somebody like Barack Obama. He’d certainly be proud of somebody like senators, somebody like John Lewis, and like all these other people who have stood proud and firm for their civil rights.
Kings.com: Many grandparents like to give advice to their grandchildren, hoping to teach them something of value. Are there any words of wisdom he shared to you that has had big impact? Any advice from him that you feel people would benefit from if they heard it?
Hemphill-Strachan: Well, he didn’t really give us advice, but he was more encouraging. He would always be saying, stay in school, be the best you can be, get good grades, but more encouraging us to be good people, to really be in contribution and a contribution, not just to our families and our lives, but to our community. And to really think about how you can be perceived, but being your true, authentic, genuine self.
Be okay with your failures. I think that’s one of the things I’m so grateful for, is that through all the triumph, through the success, through the failure, through the accomplishments, through the contributions, through all of those things, I can be proud of that impact and things that he left with us.
Kings.com: Your grandfather will forever be remembered as a champion. He was a champion in the biggest races. In the same way, you have plenty of gold and hardware from hard work on multiple programs. Do you feel proud to continue the family’s impact on society?
Hemphill-Strachan: You know, it’s funny. My effect, compared to his, it’s nothing. I have been fortunate to work with a great team, teams of people, to win awards and things like that, amazing, talented people. But I would say the impact that my family has left on society has been through the Jesse Owens Foundation, which is overseen at Ohio State University.
We have been able to provide scholarships to young people all over the country, to be able for them to have the opportunity to go to college, where financially they may never have had that opportunity. That impact I think has been the strongest impact of my family’s legacy that I can really say that all of us have something to be proud of.
Kings.com: Jesse Owens has been honored as a face of Black History Month in the past, including in basketball when Adidas celebrated the month in his honor with special designs in his memory. How do you think he would feel about being honored today after going through so many struggles throughout his life?
Hemphill-Strachan: My grandfather would be honored being honored, but really never much attention drawn on him. He’s very, very humble and would be honored to be honored, but never was somebody who wanted the attention on him, more of what he was able to do and contribute. But he would be thrilled, he would be honored. Not that he would be ungrateful, he’d be grateful for the honor.