News from the Tennessee Valley State, Local and National news
MONDAY, JUNE 27, 2005

New York reporter researching Owens book

By Deangelo McDaniel
DAILY Staff Writer 340-2469

Author Wayne Coffey seemed puzzled. But the proof was in front of him.

Three lines from the bottom on page 239 of the 1848 Lawrence County tax assessment book. The names of four slaves between the ages of 20 and 30. Lizzy, Thornton, Simon and Henry.

"It just seemed strange that you would have humans listed with watches and carriages as property," he said.

But, that's the way it was and that's part of the story Coffey, a reporter for the New York Daily News, wants to tell in a book about Jesse Owens.

I know you're saying that you already know about Owens winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany.

By now, you probably know, or have read, about him being the grandson of former slaves. But, very little has been written about daily life for the sharecroppers or what happened behind the scenes in Germany.

Coffey, author of "The Boys of Winter" about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team and "Winning Sounds Like This," a book about a deaf women's basketball team, is researching a behind-the-scenes book about Owens.

Owens, who was born in Oakville in 1913, died of cancer in 1980.

Coffey, a runner who competed in the annual Jesse Owens Memorial Run in May, visited the Olympic star's birthplace and spent time in the Lawrence County Archives looking at census records and slave documents.

"It was a powerful experience to walk on ground he walked and ran on," Coffey said. "To be at the edge of the creek where Jesse Owens played and at the shanty where he lived were power experiences."

Before he starts to write the book, Coffey is going to Berlin and to Columbus, Ohio, where Owens attended Ohio State University.

Coffey said he doesn't want to write another track and field book about Owens.

"The larger and much more compelling story is his life as an African American, his Alabama roots and the way he changed the world," Coffey said.

Crown, a division of Random House, will publish the book in 2007, Coffey said.

After writing the story of the 1980 gold-medal-winning hockey team, Coffey and the publishing company were looking for another transcending Olympic moment to write about.

"After being here (Lawrence County) four days, I'm convinced there is more to tell about this man and his achievements," Coffey said.

Coffey visited with Oswald Owens, whose family owned the dogtrot cabin where Jesse Owens was born.

Before moving to Jim Cannon's place, Henry Cleveland Owens sharecropped on land Albert Owens owned.

"Albert was my grandfather," Oswald Owens said.

He was residing in the Oakville community when news arrived about Jesse Owens winning four gold medals.

"It was a big deal because people were talking about it," he recalled. "We were all proud to hear that."

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