Whether driving past the corner of Travis and Alabama, or making a purposeful visit for some nationally renowned wings and waffles at the breakfast klub, there’s no missing the 8 foot by 40 foot wall mural with the words “I Am Jesse Owens.” What began as a project for Black History Month for the students at A+ Unlimited Potential (a middle school in the museum district) evolved into a lesson about how Jesse Owens, the son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, became the most recognizable person in the world. During the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany, while Adolf Hitler was declaring that the Aryan race was dominant, Owens became the first American track and field athlete to win four gold medals in a single Olympiad, an effective counter-argument to Hitler’s posit.
Emmy award-winning producer Kim Gagne of The Steve Harvey Show became aware of the students’ wish to produce a mural and helped to find a location (the breakfast klub, owned by Marcus Davis) and an artist to bring it to life (public artist, social entrepreneur and community developer Reginald Adams). The lessons learned while studying Owens, about the importance of the work behind the results, were applied as the students planned, researched, discussed and mapped out images on a grid, under the mentorship and guidance of Adams. The result, which took 6 weeks to paint, is a collaborative piece painted by Adams and the students of A+UP, and then installed at the site of the mural. On the left is an image of Owens in college, in the middle he is at the apex of his winning career, and on the right after his Olympic win; the style of the piece is similar to the works of Peter Max and Andy Warhol.
On May 21, during the unveiling of the mural, Council Member Larry V. Green of District K read a proclamation from the City of Houston, designating May 21, 2015 as “Jesse Owens Day.” Also present at the unveiling were students from A+UP, as well as their learning coach Cicely Benoit, who reiterated the qualities needed to succeed, including grit, diligence, zest, optimism, curiosity and social intelligence.
In his speech to the public before the unveiling, Adams credited the students, ages 12-15, who were the backbone of this work. This is not the first time that he has created public works at the site; a mural of then Senator Barack Obama was installed in 2008, before his visit to Houston for the primaries. Hope was repeatedly vandalized and, in October 2012, Adams replaced the vandalized mural with a new image of President Obama, arm extended, pointing out to the viewer.
Other public arts produced by Adams and students from other schools, through the Museum of Cultural Arts Houston (MOCAH), have featured mosaic benches and columns at Helms Elementary School (2014), and mosaic benches surrounding a labyrinth at Sharpstown International School (2015) and Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church (2014).
The mural honoring the legacy of Jesse Owens can be viewed at the breakfast klub, 3711 Travis. To view scenes from the students painting the mural, visit reginaldadams.com.