I think it’s awesome that when many of us think of Columbus, the first thing that comes to our minds is NOT the total clod of an explorer who subjugated and murdered millions through a mix of imperialism and smallpox, but is instead a wonderful college town, state capital and center of industry that holds a warm place in our hearts. In some ways we’re appropriating the name for the better. But in many more real ways, we’re perpetuating the name, once again, of a clod of an explorer who subjugated and murdered millions through a mix of imperialism and smallpox.
Having grown up in Columbus, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that, on an elementary school field trip downtown to the Santa Maria, I wondered why we had a model of an Italian explorer’s ship in a harbor in the Scioto River. Then I, being a child, thought it a wild coincidence that the city I lived in happened to share a name with an explorer who at the time I’d been taught was “great.” When I thought of Columbus Day growing up, I thought it was a holiday only in Columbus until it was referenced in Big Daddy, which is set in New York.
The point I’m trying to make here (beyond the fact I was something of an idiot apparently up to and possibly including the age of 9) is that I’ve never taken pride in Columbus, Ohio being associated with Christopher Columbus, the infamous explorer. Then again, I’m a privileged white lady, so I can’t pretend to understand if the name of the town holds different meaning for those of other backgrounds.
Why is this a topic of discussion? There’s been some talk recently of changing the name of the state capital, including a petition for one name which alludes to the high restaurants-per-capita the city possesses. The discussion comes alongside the announced removal of a Christopher Columbus statue from city hall.
It doesn’t seem realistic that we’ll change the name of the state capital. But if we did, we should explore some options beyond “Flavortown” - like maybe some choices that directly cut back at an oppressionist history and highlight some or one of the amazing individuals who fought tyranny in front of possibly the worst human to literally ever walk the planet.
We’ve got to set a baseline here: Christopher Columbus was the worst. If you don’t understand the movement to push Columbus Day to change to Indigenous People’s Day, it’s because Columbus the explorer led the rape, pillage and plunder of native peoples in his quest for gold to send back to Spain. Plus, he brought measles, smallpox and other plagues that wiped out millions of native peoples who had no immunity. Columbus is also implicated in being an impetus for the transatlantic slave trade.
Which brings us to the question of Columbus, Ohio, which was named for the explorer in 1812, and what we could possibly rename it to that would be better than “Flavortown.” If we were to be proud enough of a true hero to rename the second-largest city in the midwest to, who would it be? The obvious examples, if you’re reading this blog, are probably “Hayes,” “Griffin” or maybe “Cassady.” Let me just take a moment to remind folks that being a hero on the football field doesn’t automatically make you one off the field as well, so the search should probably go beyond the Horseshoe.
But you actually don’t have to go too far. Just a mile away from Ohio Stadium sits Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium, home of Ohio State’s soccer, lacrosse and, of course, track and field programs.
Yes, that Jesse Owens. The hero of the 1936 Olympics for literally so many reasons. And the namesake of my proposed “Owens, Ohio.”
For background, here’s a little more on Owens. Owens’ father was a sharecropper in Alabama. His grandfather was a slave. Born in Alabama in 1913 as the youngest of 10, Jesse (born James Cleveland) Owens moved to Cleveland, Ohio with his family as part of the Great Migration in the early 1920s. During this time, millions of black Americans left the rural south, where Jim Crow laws were prevalent and heavily enforced, for better opportunities in the north.
After moving to Ohio, it didn’t take long for Owens to get national attention as a star on the track. While in high school in Cleveland, Owens won three events at the 1933 National Interscholastic Championships, including tying the world record for the 100-meter dash, coming in at 9.4 seconds, and setting a new world record for the broad (long) jump at just under 25 feet.
Those performances led to numerous college offers, but Owens ultimately chose to come to Ohio State, where his notoriety on the track continued to skyrocket with his reputation as “the Buckeye Bullet.” Most notably, in a single day in Ann Arbor during championship competition for the Western Conference (the Big Ten’s precursor) in 1935, he set three world records in the 220-yard dash, 220-yard low-hurdles and the long jump. He also tied his own 100-meter dash world record.
I was certainly not living at the time, but I imagine Owens was kind of a big deal in Columbus back in 1935. If not, he was by time he got to the Berlin Olympics in 1936, which were hosted by none other than Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
Let’s start with Owens’ on-track performance, because it’s easy by comparison to discuss. Owens ended his time at the Olympics with four gold medals in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, long jump and 4x100-meter relay. Impressive? You bet.
But then there’s the social and political climate of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Hitler was ultimately responsible for the systematic roundup and murder of 17 million Jews, Slavs and other ethnic and political groups during the Holocaust. While the 1936 Olympic Games predated World War II, for Hilter they served as a platform to prove how superior his German Aryan race was to the rest of the world.
That is, until a black American named Jesse Owens effectively gave the middle finger with his four gold medal performances, which concluded with even the German people hailing his heroics (take that, Hitler). It was one of those rare moments where sport really does have the power to send a message around the world: You, oppressor, are not better.
While there was a rumor that Hitler particularly snubbed Owens by not shaking his hand, that talk was put to bed (Hitler, in fact, shook no athletes’ hands after the opening races of the Olympics, when German athletes fell to foreign teams). Regardless, Owens’ success was Hitler’s downfall at the Olympics, because he proved that Hitler’s racist ideals were wrong. It was a victory against tyrants.
Unfortunately, upon returning to New York after the Olympics, Owens was promptly thrown back into a segregated world. After a parade celebrating the Olympians in New York, Owens was forced to ride a freight elevator in the Waldorf-Astoria to get to his own reception.
Owens had to deal with the systemic racism that we’re all being awoken to today plus so, so much more. Spending his childhood in the south, again as the child of a sharecropper, Owens was subject to Jim Crow laws which legalized segregation on the basis of color. Those tensions certainly eased when the Owens family moved north, but Jesse’s struggle to support himself through college — Ohio State did not give him a scholarship, and forced him to live off-campus — shaped his experiences. He was a superstar that the nation loved to watch, but he couldn’t even eat with his teammates when they traveled, having been forced to stay at blacks-only hotels and eat at blacks-only restaurants.
No, Owens wasn’t perfect. He couldn’t find work upon returning from the Olympics in 1936 (again, systemic racism, people) and ultimately filed for bankruptcy. He was convicted of tax evasion in 1966. Frankly, back to the discussion of what to rename the city of Columbus, the thing people would probably object most to would be that Owens was born in Alabama and died in Arizona and spent only a few years in Ohio.
But at least he didn’t systematically murder millions of people because he believed he was somehow superior. Instead, he stood up to someone who did just that. And that’s someone who should be celebrated. And a far better person to name a great city after.
Bye for now.