The year was 1936, and the world watched as Nazi forces marched into the Rhineland. Following World War I, areas along the Rhine River were designated as a demilitarized zone by the Treaty of Versailles to serve as a kind of buffer between Germany and France. On March 7th, Hitler defied the treaty and troops rolled into the area unopposed, once again stirring fears of war.
Despite this aggressive move, the Nazis were putting on a show for the world and in August of 1936, the Summer Olympics were held in Berlin. Anti-Semitic signs were removed, and eight hundred Roma were detained near Berlin. There were fears for the safety of Black athletes competing in these games in the heart of Nazi Germany. Despite the whitewashing, Hitler’s views on anti-Semitism and racism were well known by this point. He had hoped that his “Aryan” Olympians would dominate in the games that year, and indeed they did, taking the lion’s share of the medals in those games. But Afrian-American athletes dominated in the Track and Field competition, undermining Hitler’s Aryan views.
Jesse Owens won four gold medals, beating the popular German track star, Luz Long, who had actually given him a tip that helped him to qualify. Long went on to publicly congratulate Owens after the event. The German crowd also gave Owens a standing ovation for his outstanding performance. Owens would later say, “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment.”
The German crowds gave Owens a standing ovation too. Sadly, Jesse Owens’ reception in his home country was cooler. After his initial return to a ticker tape parade, there was no invitation to the White House, and no endorsements. Following the parade, he had to take the freight elevator to a reception in his honor at the Waldorf-Astoria. He made some money through self-promotion, racing against horses, motorcycles, and people. He found success in starting his own Public Relations firm.
In Spain, 1936 marked the start of the Spanish Civil War. Following the abdication of the monarchy in 1931, there had been unrest among the ruling factions and in 1936, a military coup under the leadership of General Francisco Franco would begin. Franco’s troops received support from Germany and Italy, while the Republican government forces turned to Russia for aid. In 1939, Franco’s forces would prevail and he would go on to rule Spain until his death in 1975.
A number of significant weather events marked the year 1936 in the U.S. In Pittsburgh, following a year with heavy snows, March brought with in heavy rains, and when a storm dumped 1.75 inches on St. Patrick’s Day, causing the largest flood in Pittsburgh history. The downtown area was inundated and sixty people were killed in the flooding with another two hundred wounded.
Then in April a huge system moved through the Southeast sparking seventeen tornadoes that caused widespread wind damage and flooding. Two hundred and sixteen people were killed in Tupelo, Mississippi (the fourth deadliest tornado on record), and two hundred and three people perished in another twister that struck Gainesville, Georgia, making it the fifth deadliest tornado.
While the “Dust Bowl” years were winding down, they would not go out quietly. The summer of 1936 broke heat records across the North American continent. More than five thousand deaths are attributed to the heat in the U.S. and in Canada another 780 people perished. Ironically, that summer had followed one of the coldest winters on record.
So where was your family? What were they doing?