Cementing the history of Jesse Owens for future generations

What do a cloned oak tree, Jesse Owens, and Rockefeller Park have in common? They are all part of the new Jesse Owens Olympic Oak Plaza. The city wants to properly honor Owens, his legacy, and his family as well as inspire future Cleveland athletes.


An aerial view highlighting the proposed features of the Jesse Owens Olympic Park Plaza. Photo via University Circle, Inc.


Plans are underway in University Circle’s Rockefeller Park to expand the footprint of one of Cleveland’s greatest heroes: Olympic track star James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens.

The four-time gold medalist is already memorialized in the park via the Jesse Owens Olympic Oak Tree, which was planted on Arbor Day in 2021. The groundbreaking for a plaza in his name will take place later this year.

The 200-meter area surrounding the tree will become the Jesse Owens Olympic Oak Plaza, a destination site highlighting the legacy of the decorated athlete with educational signage and markers. Local artist Angelica Pozo and the local landscape architecture firm DERU will also receive assistance from members of the Owens family.

Owens’s daughter Marlene Owens Rankin said of Cleveland, “Our father’s adopted home and his children’s birthplace, honors his memory with the naming of the Jesse Owens Olympic Oak Plaza. May all who visit embrace his spirit of love for humankind and sense of fair play.”

The size of the Plaza is a direct reference to Owens’s first place win for the 200m race at the 1936 Olympics, and it will further enhance what is already a popular, family-friendly area that includes the Jean Murrell Capers Tennis Courts, Harrison Dillard Bikeway and Rockefeller Lagoon.  

The Plaza will include:

Artist’s renderings of the Podium Seat Wall, Memorial Markers, and samples of mosaic art to be created by local artist Angelica Pozo. Photo via University Circle, Inc.

  • A podium seat wall

  • Four memorial markers, detailing Owens’ Olympic medal-winning events

  • An Olympic rings-designed bike rack

  • An ADA-accessible walk

According to Elise Yablonsky, UCI’s Senior Director of Planning and Community Development, the tree itself has an interesting story related to the collaborating partners. 

“At the time of the planting and the pre-planning of the planting, we thought it was important to have some installations at the site that celebrate Owens’ legacy and of his tree, so visitors can know those stories,” she said. “The four markers around that 200-meter loop will include artwork by Pozo, depicting Owens’ early history, Olympic history, and post-Olympic history, being cognizant that there are aspects to celebrate of his accomplishments, but also being intentional about acknowledging the racism that he faced after the Olympics. We want to acknowledge both sides of that story.”

The Podium Seat Wall, which will be the largest section of the installation, will include two quotes from Owens.

“One quote focuses on the importance of working hard towards your dreams, and the other references the invisible battles that we all face in striving towards what we want to do,” said Yablonsky.

UCI currently has an open call to the community to share their dreams and invisible battles. Pozo will incorporate the community’s submissions onto the seat wall.  Feedback and suggestions are also welcome and will be considered for incorporation into Pozo’s work.

Anyone who frequents the University Circle area is probably familiar with Pozo’s work. She contributed artwork to the tile wall attached to the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Plaza, located at the intersection of East Blvd. and Wade Oval Drive.

Germany extends a branch…literally 

At the close of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany, each gold medalist was given an oak tree sapling for each medal won.  Three of the four saplings given to Owens were planted around Greater Cleveland: one at his alma mater, East Tech High School; one on the property of his parents’ home (it’s been reported that the tree died after the house was torn down); and one on the campus of James Ford Rhodes High School in Old Brooklyn, where he trained.  The whereabouts of the fourth tree are unclear.  Over the years there have been reports of the tree being located on The Ohio State University campus, but that has never been confirmed.



The last living tree is located at Rhodes High School. The tree planted last year at Rockefeller Park is a genetic replica of that tree, thanks to the grafting process.

“English Oak trees, in the best of conditions, live 80 to 90 years. Owens’s tree is approximately 86 years old, but is nearing the end of its natural life,” said Jeff Verespej, former Executive Director at the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation.

“Five years ago, we began to get very involved with the stewards of the tree and how we could extend the life of the tree, that’s how Holden and CMSD came to the table. Along the way, we had the conversation of not only extending the life of that tree but extending the life of other trees.”

Verespej explained that in the grafting process the fresh growth of a tree can be cut and grafted with the rootstock of the same tree.  If the process is successful, the result is an exact genetic replica of the host tree.

The new tree that was planted last year was the result of a partnership with the City of Cleveland, Cleveland City Council, Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD), Holden Forests & Gardens, Holden Parks Trust, Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation, Famicos Foundation, and University Circle Inc. 

According to Verespej, there are plans to plant three additional grafted trees throughout the City later this year.

For more information on the Plaza, view UCI’s planning meeting.

Born and raised in East Cleveland, Nate Paige has contributed more than 25 years to local journalism. He got his professional start at the Cleveland Call & Post and would later get his foot in the door at Cleveland.com as a copy editor. While there, he held a number of positions including entertainment reporter, community editor, hyperlocal producer, and social media coordinator. He currently handles social media for the city of Shaker Heights.



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