On May 13, 1914, a baby boy was born in rural Chambers County, Alabama just north of Lafayette. His beginnings were humble; his life filled with adversity, and yet, he became American’s first African American elevated to hero status.
Joe Louis was born on May 13, 1914, weighing on 5.5 pounds, to a sharecropper, Munroe Barrow, and his wife Lillie (Reese) Barrow. His grandparents were former slaves. His mother was half Cherokee, and his great great grandfather was a white slave owner. The family lived in a shack and already had six children. During the first twelve years of his life, he lived with his family, which grew to eight children. Not much is known about those years except that Joe talked very little until about the age of six due to a speech impediment.
When Joe was only two years old, his biological father was committed to a mental institution and almost all contact between the two was lost. His mother received word that Munroe had died while institutionalized, and when Joe was six years old, she married a local construction contractor, Pat Brooks. The family continued to live in Alabama until 1926 when they were shaken by a gang of white men in the Ku Klux Klan. They, like many others, became a part of the post-World War I Great Migration and moved north to Detroit, Michigan. The family settled in what was known as the Black Bottom neighborhood where Joe’s brother found work with the Ford Motor Company, and later Joe was employed by Ford at the River Rouge Plant. Joe also studied cabinet-making at the Bronson Vocational School. But then the depression hit.
As the stock market crashed and the United States plunged into the Great Depression, the Barrow family was hard hit. In the city, many young men turned to gang activity during this time, but not Joe. He began spending a great deal of time at a local youth recreation center on Brewster Street where he took up boxing, an activity he tried to hide from his disapproving mother. It has been said that Joe carried his boxing gloves in a violin case to disguise his activities from his mother.
At age 17, when he debuted as a light-heavy weight, it is believed that before the fight that Joe was barely literate. When the time came to write his name , he wrote so large that he ran out of room to write his whole name, Joe Louis Barrow and simply scribed Joe Louis. For the remainder of his boxing career, he was simply known by Joe Louis. Some say he also did this to hide his activity from his mother. He lost his debut match to Johnny Miller who went on to be an Olympian. Joe, however, managed to compile a resume of a number of victories in the amateur ring including becoming the club champion of the Brewster Street recreation center. In 1933, he won the 1933 Detroit-area Golden Gloves Novice Division Championship for the light heavyweight classification against Joe Biskey. He went on but lost in the Chicago Tournament of Champions. However, Joe came back the following year and won the 1934 Golden Gloves light heavyweight classification championship and the Chicago Tournament of Champions. Louis missed the New York/Chicago Champions’ crosstown bout for the ultimate Golden Gloves Championship due to a hand injury but went on to win the National AAu tournament in St. Louis, Missouri later that year. Louis ended his amateur career with a record of fifty wins and only four losses. He had an astounding 43 knockouts.
As a professional fighter, Joe Louis racked up 71 fights to his credit. He knocked out 54 of his opponents. He only had three defeats. Joe Louis, who had become known as the Brown Bomber held the championship from 1937-March of 1949. This was the longest span of a heavyweight titleholder. A sad note to Louis was that his father, who had been presumed dead since before he was six, actually did not die until 1938. His father never knew of his son’s fame and success. In 1951, he was knocked out by Rocky Marciano. The Brown Bomber’s career was finished.
But as he left the ring, he left it with hero status. Joe Louis’s career and image was largely shaped by John Roxborough and Julian Black. They realized that the white American public was not fond of the flamboyant lifestyle of other black boxers such as Johnson. They sought to protect their client by establishing a set of “commandments” for his personal conduct. The commandments included:
1. Never take his picture with a white woman.
2. Never gloat over a fallen opponent.
3. Never engage in fixed fights.
4, Life and fight clean.
Joe Louis was elevated by the American public to more than just a boxer when he avenged a loss he had had to German’s Max Schmeling. The whole nation celebrated his victory and saw it as one over Nazism and Adolph Hitler. In 1942, Louis voluntarily enlisted as a private in the United States Army. He was a publicity and media drean. At his enlistment, which was recorded on newsreel camera, he was asked “What’s your occupation?” He replied, “Fighting and let us at the Japs.”
Later at a dinner, Louis was questioned about the war effort. He became even more popular when he said, “We’ll win, ’cause we’re on God’s side.” Louis was growing as an American hero, and in doing so, was breaking down some of the racial stereotyping that had been the status quo. He also was known to donate the purse from at least two of his fights to military relief funds. He fought in nearly 100 exhibitions before two million servicemen.
Though he achieved hero status, he like all heros, had his opposition. Those who disliked the violence of boxing criticized him. Though he was discreet with his affairs, Louis was known to have enjoyed the company of both African-American and white women such as Lena Horn, Sonja Henie and Lana Turner. He was married four times, twice to his first wife.
Louis had earned about $5 million during his career. During the war, the IRS had seemingly ignored the fact that he owed back taxes. Louis had lived an extravagant life and suddenly found himself owned the IRS $1.2 million. His need to pay back taxes, interest, and penalties caused him to return after being out of the ring for two years.
His life also took a downturn when he developed a cocaine addiction. He was admitted to the hospital several times for the addiction and for paranoia.
Finally, Louis became an “official greeter” at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. His last four years were spent in a wheelchair. The Brown Bomber died at age 66 from a heart attack on April 12, 1981.
At the request of President Ronald Reagan, Joe Louis was buried in hero’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery.