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. His father was institutionalized in a mental facility in 1916, and his mother later married Pat Brooks. In 1926, after an incident with the local Ku Klux Klan, the Brooks and Louis moved to Detroit, Michigan. The story goes that Louis’s mother sent him for violin lessons, and he instead used the money for boxing lessons. Louis had his first boxing debut in 1932 and the rest is boxing history. He became heavyweight champion in 1937 and defended his title a record 25 times.
Although known as an amazing fighter, Louis is also known for his impact on history, culture, and race relations in several different ways.
Louis conducted America’s first all-black horseshow at his dude ranch in Utica, Michigan. Spring Hill Farm was more than 400 acres and was once a stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves. Louis, with his manager John Roxborough, purchased the farm in 1939. The farm housed horses, a restaurant, dance hall, and riding academy. Louis, who had a love for horses, held several horse shows at the farm and donated the funds to various charities before it was sold.
Joe Louis was so popular that presidential candidate Wendell Willkie asked him to campaign for him during his run for the presidency against Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940. Louis made over 123 speeches for Willkie, the last taking place in Detroit on November 3, 1940. On that date, Louis urged black voters to vote for Willkie because "...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." Willkie won the state of Michigan during the presidential election, but ultimately lost the presidency to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
During World War II, Louis fought two charity bouts and donated his winnings to the Navy Relief Society. A few days after the fight in mid-January of 1942, sports writers honored Joe Louis at a dinner. The dinner was attended by sports writers, army and navy officers, the former postmaster general, J. Edgar Hoover, the former mayor of New York James Walker, and other dignitaries. Walker served as the speaker of the evening and said this,
“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.”
Joe Louis entered the United States Army in 1942 as heavyweight champion. Due to his status and popularity as a boxing champion, the Army used his image to recruit both black and white soldiers. The United States Office of Facts and Figures created a poster in 1942 with Louis’s image.
While in the Army, Louis experienced blatant racism. On one occasion, a military policeman ordered Louis and black middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson to move their seats to a bench in the rear of an Alabama Army camp bus depot. When Louis refused, the MP tried to arrest them. Louis would use his connections and contacts in Washington D.C. to end such segregation at several military institutions. In another incident, Louis used his political influence, to have charges dropped against future baseball great Jackie Robinson, who had also resisted being told to move his seat on a southern bus, resulting in him punching a captain who called Robinson a "nigger."
Another indication that Louis had broken color lines could be seen in the commercialization of his image to sell products. Joe Louis endorsed everything from boxing gloves to Chesterfield cigarettes at a time when a black man’s image was considered by some to be taboo.
The impact Joe Louis had on all people can be seen in thousands of letters he received from all over the world.
Joe Louis was seen and accepted not just as a black hero, but also as an American hero. It can be argued this was one of the first positive images of blacks that changed some attitudes concerning race. Although at first, white America media wrote unflattering things about him.
Joe Louis was a golf fanatic and was credited with breaking the PGA ban, which at that time, only allowed whites to join the PGA.
Louis had several business ventures that all failed. One such business was a soft drink called Joe Louis Punch. There were big plans for the soft drink, which was sold in thirty-one cities and in South America; however, it ended in failure after a few short years. The soft drink allegedly had an awful taste, could not maintain its color, and had no fizzle.
Following Louis's death on April 12, 1981, President Ronald Regan 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 white and black people around the world."