Olympic hero Jesse Owens’ name to go back on a CPS school

Written By Sun-Times Wire Posted: 10/23/2013, 04:03pm

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Marlene Owens Rankin (left) and sisters Gloria Owens Hemphill and Beverly Owens Prather at the Chicago Board of Education meeting Wednesday thanked officials for restoring their father’s name to a South Side school. | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

The Chicago Board of Education Wednesday approved to reinstate the name of Olympic legend Jesse Owens to a South Side school.

Amid much protest, the original Jesse Owens Community Academy was closed in June, its children consolidated into nearby Gompers Elementary School as part of CPS’ record school closings.

CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who recommended last spring that the West Pullman school originally built in Owens’ honor be consolidated for lack of students into Gompers Elementary School, said Wednesday at the Board of Education meeting that Owens is “an American hero.”

She said she helped inaugurate a school named after Owens when she was the CEO of Cleveland schools.

“Chicago is proud of Jesse Owens’ strong connection to the city and I look forward to seeing a new generation of Chicago students learn and grow in the classrooms of the Jesse Owens Academy,” Byrd-Bennett said.

Owens’ three daughters, who advocated for their father’s name for the school, were at the school board meeting.

Marlene Owens Rankin, 74, thanked officials for “understanding what’s in a name.”

The women said having their father’s name on a school will send a positive message to kids — especially since the family’s advocacy to restore the name was peaceful and ultimately successful.

We were “interested in the children knowing about people of their culture and their accomplishments,” said Gloria Owens Hemphill, 81. “They too can accomplish … these things.”

“We hope his powerful legacy will encourage them to strive for excellence,” Owens Rankin said.

Earlier this month, the Gompers Local School Council approved renaming the school after Owens.

The original Owens, 12450 S. State, was closed into Gompers, 12302 S. State, and not the other way around, because Gompers — named for Samuel Gompers, the English-born labor leader — was higher performing academically, according to CPS criteria. The new Gompers was given a new STEM program and had labs built and upgraded. Gompers’ principal took over both buildings about a block apart to form a single school serving pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

That didn’t deter Owens’ three daughters, who joined the fight against the original closure and then for the renaming of Samuel Gompers to honor their dad.

James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens was the most decorated athlete of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, winning four gold medals in track and field. He spoke out against racism during the games held during Adolf Hitler’s reign, and in the United States, too.

In 1949, Owens moved to Chicago and raised his family here. He was given the Congressional Gold Medal and the Medal of Freedom, too.

The school was built in 1980 and named for Owens after he died of lung cancer that year and was buried at Oakwoods Cemetery, 1035 E. 67th St.

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