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Joseph Louis Barrow

Joseph Louis Barrow, better known as Joe Louis, was born on May 13, 1914, in Alabama. Both of his parents were former slaves and sharecroppers. In 1916, his father was institutionalized in a mental facility, and his mother later remarried to Pat Brooks. In 1926, following an altercation with the local Ku Klux Klan, the Brooks family, including Louis, relocated to Detroit, Michigan. Legend has it that Louis's mother intended for him to take violin lessons, but he instead used the money for boxing lessons. Louis made his boxing debut in 1932, marking the beginning of a storied career. He went on to become the heavyweight champion in 1937 and defended his title a record 25 times.

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Although renowned as an exceptional fighter, Louis is also celebrated for his profound impact on history, culture, and race relations in various ways.

Louis organized America’s first all-black horse show at his dude ranch in Utica, Michigan. Spring Hill Farm, spanning over 400 acres, had once served as a refuge for slaves on the Underground Railroad. In 1939, Louis and his manager John Roxborough acquired the farm. Besides housing horses, the farm boasted a restaurant, dance hall, and riding academy. With a passion for horses, Louis hosted several horse shows at the farm, with proceeds benefiting various charities, before its eventual sale.

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Joe Louis was so popular that presidential candidate Wendell Willkie asked him to campaign for him during his bid for the presidency against Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940. Louis delivered over 123 speeches for Willkie, with the final one taking place in Detroit on November 3, 1940. On that day, Louis encouraged black voters to support Willkie, stating, "...he has put things down in black and white that we’re going to get jobs and not have to take welfare checks. I’m going to cast my vote Tuesday for Willkie for our next president." While Willkie won the state of Michigan during the election, he ultimately lost the presidency to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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During World War II, Louis participated in two charity bouts and donated his winnings to the Navy Relief Society. Shortly after one of these fights in mid-January of 1942, Joe Louis was honored at a dinner attended by sports writers, army and navy officers, former postmaster general, J. Edgar Hoover, former mayor of New York James Walker, and other dignitaries. Walker, serving as the speaker of the evening, praised Louis:

"Joe, all the Negroes in the world are proud of you because you have given them reason to be proud. You never forgot your own people. You are an American gentleman. When you fought Buddy Baer and gave your purse to the Navy Relief Society, you took your title and your future and bet it all on patriotism and love of country. Joe Louis, that night you laid a rose on the grave of Abraham Lincoln."

In 1942, Joe Louis enlisted in the United States Army while still holding the heavyweight champion title. Leveraging his status and popularity as a boxing champion, the Army utilized his image to recruit soldiers, both black and white. The United States Office of Facts and Figures created a poster featuring Louis's image in 1942.

During his time in the Army, Louis encountered blatant racism. On one occasion, a military policeman ordered Louis and black middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson to move to the rear bench of an Alabama Army camp bus depot. When Louis refused, the MP attempted to arrest them. Louis utilized his connections in Washington D.C. to combat such segregation in various military institutions. In another incident, Louis intervened to have charges dropped against future baseball great Jackie Robinson, who had resisted orders to move his seat on a southern bus, resulting in a confrontation where Robinson punched a captain who had called him a "nigger."

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Another indication of Louis breaking color lines could be observed in the commercialization of his image to sell products. Joe Louis endorsed a wide array of items, ranging from boxing gloves to Chesterfield cigarettes, at a time when the use of a black man's image in advertising was considered taboo by some.

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The impact that Joe Louis had on people of all backgrounds is evident in the thousands of letters he received from around the world.

Joe Louis was not only viewed and embraced as a black hero but also as an American hero. This can be argued as one of the earliest instances of a positive portrayal of blacks influencing attitudes regarding race, despite initial negative portrayals in the media.

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Joe Louis was a golf enthusiast and was credited with breaking the PGA ban, which, at that time, only permitted whites to join the PGA.

Louis ventured into several business endeavors, all of which failed. One such venture was a soft drink called Joe Louis Punch. Despite ambitious plans for the beverage, which was distributed in thirty-one cities and in South America, it ultimately failed after only a few years. The soft drink was reportedly marred by an unpleasant taste, an inability to maintain its color, and a lack of fizz.

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Following Louis's death on April 12, 1981, President Ronald Reagan said, "Joe Louis was more than a sports legend—his career was an indictment of racial bigotry and a source of pride and inspiration to millions of people, both white and black, around the world."

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