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Jesse Owens Olympic Oak Tree Continues to take Root this Fall with New Documentary and Grafted Sapling Next to Site of Original Tree

Tue., Oct. 11, 2022

Eighty-five years ago, a priceless oak tree was planted by Jesse Owens in Cleveland at James Ford Rhodes High School, a symbol of athletic and cultural triumph. This fall, a horticulturally propagated tree from the Jesse Owens Olympic Oak will be planted next to the site of the original tree. A documentary that tells the story of this iconic tree will debut at the Chagrin Documentary Film Fest this fall.

“We are thrilled to continue to raise awareness of the tree and ensure its legacy lives on so that Jesse Owens’ story of triumph in the face of adversity abroad and at home stays centered in Cleveland’s story in the future,” said Jeff Verespej, chief of staff & operations for Cleveland Neighborhood Progress (CNP).

The documentary “Olympic Oaks, Continuing Jesse Owens’ Legacy” by Flex Media will debut at the Chagrin Documentary Film Fest as a part of their Local Shorts Program and run Friday, October 7th at 1:15 p.m., Saturday, October 8th at 11 a.m., and virtually at chagrinfilmfest.org. Tickets are on sale now.

A planting of a Jesse Owens Olympic Oak sapling will take place on Thursday, October 12th at 1 p.m. at James Ford Rhodes High School. Community leaders and students from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District will plant the new tree together, in the same courtyard where the original tree grew for more than eight decades.

“We plant trees for future generations, and this tree is a powerful representation of the Jesse Owens legacy that continues to live on many decades later,” said Jill Koski, president and CEO of Holden Forests & Gardens.

The original tree was planted by Owens when he returned from the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, Germany. He had just won four gold medals in track and set three world records. The German Olympic Committee gifted gold medalists with oaks, the national tree of Germany. No definitive record exists of the Olympic Oak trees and their plantings in the United States; the only confirmed living tree of the four that were awarded to Owens is at James Ford Rhodes High School, where he practiced track growing up.

After years of intense stewardship from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) and horticultural partners, the original tree succumbed to its natural life cycle and did not return with any spring growth in 2022. While CMSD, Holden Forest & Gardens, and CNP work with partners to memorialize the original tree, the grafted replacement has been years in the making and is ready for planting.

How do you propagate a cherished tree? In February 2017, Bartlett Tree Experts contacted Holden Forests & Gardens for assistance with the project. Grafting, a skilled form of propagation commonly used for trees, was chosen to preserve the genetic identity of the new duplicate trees. Klyn Nurseries of Perry, Ohio, which has experience in grafting oaks, 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 genetically identical to the parent.

In spring 2021, in partnership with University Circle Inc., the first propagated sapling was planted at the Rockefeller Park Lagoon, a fitting home for the tree given Owens’ contributions to increased access to recreational opportunities. The lagoon is a popular spot for fishing and features a well-used pavilion, playground, and spray ground. The site is also across the street from Judge Jean Murrell Capers Courts, which continues the park tradition started by the Forest City Tennis Club, the nation’s oldest black tennis club, and honors its long-standing member.  Judge Capers was a city tennis champion, the first black woman elected to Cleveland City Council, and served as an Assistant Ohio Attorney General and a Cleveland Municipal Judge.

Jesse Owen’s Post-Olympic History

Despite his Olympic triumph, Jesse Owens struggled against racism at home and was not invited to the White House after the 1936 Olympics. He was honored at a celebration at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, but he was required to take a freight elevator to reach the event. Jesse was welcomed home with a parade in Cleveland, famously inspiring future Olympian Harrison Dillard with a wink and a wave. He briefly worked as a playground instructor for underprivileged youth in Cleveland, ultimately becoming a playground director with Cleveland’s Parks and Recreation Department. During World War II, Owens was appointed as director of a national fitness program for African Americans. He was named Ambassador of Sports by President Eisenhower in 1955 and toured the world promoting the virtues of amateur sports programs with a particular emphasis on opportunities for underprivileged youth; he continued goodwill tours into the 1970s and 80s. Owens received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford in 1976.

About Cleveland Neighborhood Progress

Cleveland Neighborhood Progress is the leading community development voice in Cleveland. Since 1988 CNP has supported the work of neighborhood revitalization through direct support of the community development corporation network, catalytic real estate investments, and lending capital.

About the Cleveland Metropolitan School District
The Cleveland Metropolitan School District is the second largest public school district in Ohio. Under The Cleveland Plan, a customized blueprint for education reform in the city, the District seeks to ensure that every child and every neighborhood has access to a high-quality education. The sweeping reforms in The Plan have enabled CMSD to go from being one of the worst performing districts in the state to one of the fastest improving.  

About Holden Forests & Gardens
Holden Forests & Gardens is made up of two of Northeast Ohio’s most important environmental and cultural institutions — the Holden Arboretum and Cleveland Botanical Garden — whose mission is to connect people with the wonder, beauty, and value of trees and plants, to inspire action for healthy communities.  One of the largest public gardens in the country, Holden Forests & Gardens has 18,000 member households and an annual attendance of 350,000 for whom we strive to provide inspirational and educational visitor experiences. For more information, visit holdenfg.org. 

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