by Elizabeth Singleton-Bruno
To the world he was one of the most dynamic, flamboyant, and charismatic champions the boxing league had ever seen. In June of 1938, at Yankee Stadium, in one of the most riveting fights of the century between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, countless fans around the globe and millions of Americans at home were glued to their radios for the opening bell. Just two years prior, Schmeling had crushed the “Brown Bomber’s” invincibility by knocking him out in the twelfth round. However, in an electrifying rematch, Louis’ relentless destruction of Schmeling heralded him as a hero forever, in the eyes of the nation and entire world.
In a career that spanned over three decades, Louis’ ringmanship as well as his boxing record were impeccable. The first Black champion since Jack Johnson, he became the standard by which others were judged. In his youth Louis’ skill blossomed at the Brewster Gym under the experienced eye of Atler Ellis. To assist him in the young boxers training, Ellis recruited Holeman Williams, a young Black middle-weight amateur, who later turned professional, as a sparing partner and teacher.
Ellis first matched his protege’ (Louis) against Johnny Miler, a White, light-weight fighter, who was a member of the 1932 U.S. Olympic team. Louis’ loss to Miler intensified his concentration on boxing. He left his job at Ford and entered the game whole heartedly. The Young boxer became disciplined and diligent in his training regimen.
Fourteen knock-outs later, Louis made the decision in 1933, to enter the Golden Gloves, a step toward turning professional. At this point Holeman recommended a more experienced trainer, George Slayton, who managed the Detroit Athletic Club.
Touring the country and winning most of his fights, Louis began to gain respect in amateur circles. A string of knock-outs sent the Young boxer to the 1933 Eolden Gloves National Championship in Boston. Throughout his fifth-four amateur bouts, Louis won forty-three knockouts, seven by decision and lost four, all by decision. Louis’ amateur fighting peak when he won the National American Athletic Union (AAU) Light- Heavy-weight Championship in St. Louis.
At the request of George Slayton, John Roxborough, who was from a wealthy, well-known, and prominent family in Detroit, was invited to watch Louis practice. Roxborough quickly spotted Louis’ potential and agreed to manage him. Louis’ boxing skills and talents flourished under Roxborough’s guidance. In 1934, due to strained personal finances, Roxborough turned to Julian Black, a clandestine night club owner in Chicago, for financial assistance. The two formed a successful manager’s regime that lasted up until World War II.
Throughout his professional boxing career, Louis fought and beat the best of them. From 1934 up until his retirement in 1951 he went ringside with greats such as Jack Krantz, Max Schmeling, Tony Galento, Billy Conn, Art Ramsey, Jersey Joe Walcott, Omelia Agramonte, and Rocky Marciano. With over sixty knock-outs under his professional belt, and countless other wins, Louis was only knocked-out twice in his career, once by Max Schmeling, in 1938, which marked his beginning of his career, and once by Rocky Marciano, in 1951, which marked the end of his career.
From Madison Square Gardens in New York to Hollywood, California, Louis mesmerized his ringside fans, while bludgeoning his opponents. One of the most exhilarating fights of Louis’ career was his bout with Jimmy Braddock. Braddock, who was nine years Joe’s senior, was considered a skillful boxer. Louis entered the ring against Braddock, at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, and became the first contender to challenge the champions title in two years.
Braddock came out fighting, but the Brown Bombers’ jabs began taking their toll in the second round and by the sixth round, Braddock was going to throw in the towel. Joe threatened him and he continued. Louis’ punches were blinding and by the eighth round the champion knew he had Braddock right where he wanted him.
One of Joe’s jabs landed squarely in Braddock’s face and he followed with a powerful overhand right to his opponents jaw. Braddock fell face down on the canvas in a pool of blood.
With a thundering roar, the crowd of 42,000, more than 20,000 of whom were Black, rose to their feet as the referee introduced Joe Louis as the “winner and new heavy-weight champion”. Within seconds of the radio announcement of Louis’s victory, the streets of urban and rural centers throughout the world were filled with singing and shouting Blacks. More than 5,000 people paraded up Seventh Avenue in New York. It was only earlier that year that Hitler refused to acknowledge Black Olympic champions in track and field, Jesse Owens, Cornelius Johnson, Ralph Metcalf, Archie Williams and John Woodruff in Germany. As a result, Joe Louis’ victory symbolized a new era of hope for oppressed Blacks everywhere.
Louis’ public image grew larger than life. Everyone liked him and many loved him. Throughout his life he remained an exceptional individual able to bridge barriers between the races, an accomplishment few could match in the mid-1900’s. He was a man’s man, strong, well-connected and exciting to be around. He was also a ladies’ man, handsome, romantic and a lavish spender. Louis married four times, twice to the same woman.
He had numerous affairs, trysts and associations with unknown as well as celebrated women. He had two natural children by his first wife, Marva, and later in his life, with Martha, his third wife he cared for two foster children and adopted four others.
Just before the Max Baer fight in 1935, Louis married Marva Trotter. He was 21, she 19. Marva first met Joe in 1934 at Chicago’s Trafton Gymnasium, where he was training. At the time, she was a stenographer for the Chicago Insurance Exchange. Upon the insistence of a friend, she went to watch Louis work-out. Later that evening he called Marva, whom he spotted amongst the fans.
Marva interested in perusing a relationship with Louis, whom she found handsome and charming, began to court him. When her mother died in 1935, he proposed to her saying “Now you need someone to take care of you.” Reverend Walter Trotter, Marva’s brother married the couple in the apartment of a friend on Edgecombe Ave in Sugar Hill, an elite section of Harlem, New York. Only a few intimate friends and relatives were in attendance.
Marva considered herself wife, lover, confidant, friend and teacher to her husband. Shortly after they married she hired, with her husbands approval, Russell Cowans, a Black journalist with a master’s degree in English, from the University of Michigan, to tutor him. When he wasn’t training or fighting, Joe was studying reading, writing and arithmetic with Cowan at night. Eventually they worked their way into a full high school curriculum.
Louis was so magnificent, and his accomplishments so unique for a Black at that time, that he attracted a circle of people who just wanted to be near him, some to inherit favors, others to merely bask in the glory of being in his shadow. Mingling with the likes of such stars as Lena Horne, Clark Gable, Jimmy Durante, Frank Sinatra, Ed Sullivan, Lana Turner, Bob Hope, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington, to name a few, did not inhibit Louis from being down to earth and fun to be around.
To countless millions of Blacks and Whites, Joe Louis’ victories represented an era of change. With centuries past of second class treatment for Blacks, they now had one of their own, the first African American to be “respected” by people all over the world as a hero, and it was invigorating. One admirer remarked, “every time Louis won in the ring, it seemed to make up for all those beatings we took in the past. To many, Joe’s pride and dignity gave them newfound self-esteem.
Louis’ heritage, like that of other southern Blacks, was mixed, but primarily stemmed from Africa. His maternal grandparents were sold into slavery in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. George Shealey a White plantation owner, bought his great grandmother and her two children. There is also Black-foot Indian blood on his maternal side. Munroe Barrow was of James Barrow, the aprominent White planter in the Buckalew Mountains. Louis’ grandmother on paternal side, Victoria Harp Barrow, was half Cherokee (a descendant of a chief) and half White.
Many of Louis’ ancestors entered the United States through South Carolina’s busy slave port of Charleston. More than 65,000 slaves were imported into South Carolina from Africa during those years. Considered quite discriminating and experienced purchasers of Africans, South Carolinians chose slaves from the African Gold Coast first, then the Windward Coast, and finally the Upper Niger Valley, the region where the Mandingo lived, who were primarily used as house servants.
When the slaves were freed, Salem Bell, a neighboring white landowner sold Louis’ maternal great-grandfather 120 acres for five dollars an acre to be paid in crop over time. Louis’ great-grandfather was one of the first men to buy property in Alabama after slavery was abolished.
Although the family’s encounters with southerners may have been better than their peers, life for the Barrows and Brooks in the 1920’s remained barely above the subsistence level.
Enticed by recruiters who traveled throughout the South, and advertisements in southern black newspaper, the Barrows and Brooks packed up in 1926 and traveled to Detroit. The promising economic rewards and greater tolerance in northern urban centers attracted many southerners, making Detroit one of major cities during the great migration north. Poor People in the south, especially Blacks, were finding they couldn’t afford to live on the farm anymore. Unemployment was high and social conditions were dreadful. With wages rising in the north and the decline in European immigration, Blacks were able to get some of the new jobs, so they deserted the farms in droves.
Detroit was a particular popular destination because of its economic growth. Indeed, during the 1920’s it would show the largest gain in Black population of any U.S. city. It was here that Louis’ boxing career began. When Louis arrive in Detroit, he began attending Duffield School. Based on his academic interest, a teacher recommended a transfer to Bronson vocational school. Louis attended Bronson, until he was 17, and quickly gained proficiency in carpentry.
His closest friends most of his life came from the Black Bottom, a section on the east side of Detroit. Many of them gathered at the Calvary Baptist Church after school. These included Thurston McKinney, who really introduced Louis to boxing, and Freddie Guinyard, who became his advance man and personal secretary during his early boxing career.
LOUIS AND GOLF
Louis had interests other than boxing during his lifetime. As Shirley Povich, a sportwriter for the Washington Post once said, “Joe Louis was the greatest single factor in destroying the color line (in golf) merely by the force of his skill and personality”. Louis first took up golf in the mid 1930’s and soon after it became his favorite pastime. It suited his athletic ability and was far less demanding than boxing. Golf also absorbed his competitive nature and obliged his gambling instincts.
Ed Sullivan introduced Louis to golf when he was in New York once. Joe loved golf and had tremendous patience for the game. Whereas a lot of golfers didn’t like to practice, he did. Louis was as intrigued about the gambling of golf as he was the athletic challenge of the game. He was as well known on the golfing circuit for his risk taking as he was for his competence. From a number of accounts he probably lost close to half a million dollars on the sport.
Although Louis did not normally make waves regarding discrimination, golf, the only remaining segregated sport, became an exception for him in the 1950’s. Incensed by the inequities faced by his Black golf friends, he used the sport to make a public statement on behalf of all Blacks. It was one of the few times aside from his wartime activities that he did so.
Louis used the 1952 Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) tournament in San Diego, California, as his vehicle. A six-handicap amateur golfer, he had been invited by the tournament committee to participate in the $10,000 San Diego Open golf tournament at Chula Vista. That, however, was before the committee was told by Horton Smith, president of the PGA, that its bylaws prevented a non-Caucasian player from competing in a PGA-sanctioned event.
Louis went to San Diego anyway. “I didn’t expect they’d let me play when I came down here,” Louis told reporters. But I wanted ’em to tell me personally. I want to bring this thing out into the limelight so the people can know what the PGA is.
Being the man that he was, Joe Louis gave so much to so many, pride, dignity, strength, style and, yes, money. An entire generation, both Black and White, were inspired and motivated by his success. This is why he was loved and admired by countless fans. During the 1950’s and throughout the rest of his life, Louis was frequently honored by the boxing world.
In 1954, The Ring inducted him along with Jack Dempsey and Henry Armstrong into the Boxing Hall of Fame. He was also installed in Madison Square Garden’s Hall of Fame in 1968. The inscription in the garden reads, “Highly respected sports celebrity and most active heavyweight champion in boxing history, the Brown Bomber put his title on the line twenty-five times. Eight defenses were made in the Garden with six ending in knockouts. His aggressive style and punching power accounted for ten first-round victories.”
The Jackie Robinson Foundation, established in 1973, wanted to give Louis one of its first Humanitarian Awards. However when he was selected, Louis was too ill to attend the dinner.
Frank Sinatra hosted a benefit for Louis at Ceasar’s Palace in 1978. Everyone from Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and Cary Grant, to Muhammed Ali and Billy Conn were there. It was a big night for Joe. Even Max Schmeling, who on occasion stayed in contact with Louis throughout the years, flew over from Germany.
Also that year Secretary of the Army, Clifford L. Alexander, Jr., a Black who had grown up in Harlem listening to Joe Louis fights, presented him with the Army’s Distinguished Civilian Service Medal. This is the highest honor the army can bestow on a civilian. In front of an audience of movie stars and boxing greats at Ceasar’s Palace, Secretary Alexander pinned the medal on Louis’ tuxedo. Years later, the Secretary fondly remembered the event, and stated he was so thrilled at finally meeting his hero. He described the former champion, by saying, “It was a greatness with style. When he boxed, he boxed with enormous style. When he won, he won with enormous style.”
Like greatness past, all beginnings have an end. The sound of the trumpets ceases, and heroes go home. As a result of heart irregularities and severe high blood pressure, Louis suffered a slight stroke. His speech sounded slurred for the last year of his life. In 1980 his conditions deteriorated and a pacemaker was put in his chest. Joe finally told his doctor, “I’m ready whenever God wants to take me. I’ve lived my life and I’ve done what I need to do.”
Joe Louis died on Palm Sunday, April 12, 1981 of cardiac arrest, hours after being hailed by well-wishers attending the World Boxing Council heavyweight Championship fight between Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. On the morning of April 17, 1981, Good Friday, thousands of poor, humble, rich and famous flocked to Ceasar’s Palace Sports Pavilion in Las Vegas to attend the stirring Gospel service that followed Louis’ death. He lay in a copper casket in the middle of a boxing ring roped in red, white and blue and flanked by two honor guards from nearby Nellis Air Force Base. On the previous day thousands more had filed past his casket in the Hall draped in black.
At his funeral more than 800 people filled the chapel to capacity and an equal number outside listened to the service over a public address system. Louis was honored in song by Sammy Davis, Jr., and paid tributes by Frank Sinatra, a close friend for over forty years. The Reverend Jesse Jackson eloquently eulogized Louis as thousands of his fans paid their last respects. Bob Waters of Newsday suggested it would appropriate for Louis, as close to a king as any American ever was, be brought to his final resting place by a team of arch-necked horses. The procession of limousines, carrying the flag-draped coffin ended below the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. With a three-shot salute and the playing of “Taps”, Joe Louis Barrows Jr. was laid to rest on a cool spring day surrounded by flowers, athletes, famed individuals and thousands of loyal fans.