Part One — The Announcement

The 1936 Summer Olympics were held in Berlin, Germany. Jesse Owens, an American sprinter, won four Gold Medals, much to the chagrin of Adolf Hilter and his Nazi Party. Jesse Owens instantly became an international star. Several Pike County families could boast that they had met Jesse and for one particular family the details remained a proud tradition for generations.

Eight months before the Berlin Olympics, the January 9, 1936 WAVERLY WATCHMAN carried a two sentence announcement that Jesse Owens, the Ohio State University track star, would be speaking at Saint Ann Chapel, African Methodist Episcopal Church in Piketon at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 12, 1936. Everyone was cordially invited.

Most readers had heard of Jesse Owens’ exploits at Ohio State. At the 1935 Big Ten championships in the space of less than an hour he broke three world records and tied another.

The location of Saint Ann Chapel, African Methodist Episcopal Church was less known. The church, located on the present day site of the Pike County Community Action Health Center in Piketon, was less than two years old. The prime mover among the trustees of the AME Church was Tabitha Zimmerman, well-known in Piketon as the midwife who assisted the town doctor in birthing children. She, along with her husband Charles, a janitor in the Piketon schools, was able to secure enough pledges to purchase land in October 1933. The original donors were James E. and W.N. Lucas, Jr., Rev. and Mrs. T.W. Woodson and Robert and William Price and mother.

The structure was built out of concrete blocks with stone facings on the exterior, giving the church the appearance of a classic older stone building. The main floor 960 square feet with a full basement. The three windows on each side of the church were stained glass with the name of an original donor inscribed in the corner of the windows. The Buckeye Bell foundry in Cincinnati cast the church bell.

Tabitha Zimmerman served as pastor of Saint Ann Chapel. Her sister, Roxie Martin, provided the music. Roxie, who operated the Fair Trace shoe store in the front room of her home in Piketon also taught piano to neighborhood students. The family of their brother, John Lucas, a prosperous Newton Township farmer, were regular attendees. The Lucas family would prove to be key players in the Jesse Owens visit.

Jesse Owens speaks at Piketon, Ohio

Story written by Blaine Beekman

Part Two — The Appearance

Jesse Owens would experience amazing success at the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics, but back in January, 1936, Jesse was dealing with a number of issues that threatened his ability to participate. Ohio State did not offer track scholarships so Jesse had to work his way through. In the summers, he worked at a Sohio filling station in his hometown of Cleveland. During the school years at Ohio State, he ran a service elevator and worked as a page at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus. To maintain his amateur status, Jesse could not accept any commercial endorsements. He had recently married and now had a wife and a small child to support.

Jesse’s grades had suffered with his increased workload. In the fall quarter of 1935, he failed a Psychology course and on Dec. 28, 1935, was declared ineligible for spring track. He would need that competition to be in peak condition for the Olympic trials in June.

For relaxation, Jesse frequented a pool hall operated by James Lucas. Jim, a native Pike Countian, had moved to Columbus after service in World War I. Aware of Jesse’s financial issues, Jim suggested that he consider going to Pike County to speak at St. Ann Chapel. Jim had been one of the original church donors, and his sister Tabitha Zimmerman was the pastor. Jesse agreed, a date was set, and word went out, including the two sentences in the WAVERLY WATCHMAN announcing that Jesse would speak at 2 p.m. on January 12, 1936 at Saint Ann Chapel.

On Saturday evening, January 11, Jim drove Jesse to the Jasper home of John Lucas, Jim’s brother. They spent the night with John’s family and the next day drove into Piketon where Jesse spoke on Sunday afternoon. Those in attendance took up a free will offering, and Jim and Jesse drove back to Columbus.

Neither the WAVERLY WATCHMAN nor the REPUBLICAN HERALD covered Jesse’s talk. No church records from Saint Ann Chapel are known to exist, but the memory of Jesse’s speech has passed from generation to generation.

Activities at Saint Ann Chapel gradually declined. Tabitha Zimmerman served as a pastor until her death in a traffic accident in 1943. For the next two decades, visiting pastors filled in. Most of the original members passed away in the 1960s and Saint Ann Chapel, African Methodist Episcopal Church in Piketon closed its doors.

In 1971, Melby and Selby Williams purchased the property for their Piketon Marathon Oil business. The building was remodeled and remained in use until 1999 when the Williams brothers build a new facility and sold the structure to Pike County Community Action. The church building was razed in 2000 and the site is now occupied by the Community Action Health Center.

Melby Williams did save one key element of the church. He had given the church bell to the Cotties Corner Church in Sunfish Township where it still rings.

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