Black HIStory: Joseph Louis Barrow

Joseph Louis Barrow (b. May 13, 1914 – d. April 12, 1981)

Today’s feature is on boxer and nationwide hero Joe Louis. Better known as “The Brown Bomber”, Louis is the longest reigning heavyweight champion in boxing history. “Louis’s championship reign lasted 140 consecutive months, during which he participated in 27 championship fights, including 25 successful title defenses – all records for the heavyweight division.”

Louis, the grandson of former slaves, grew up in rural Alabama. As a child, “he suffered from a speech impediment, and spoke very little until about the age of six.”

“The Depression hit the Louis family hard, but as an alternative to gang activity, Joe began to spend time at a local youth recreation center at 637 Brewster Street in Detroit. Legend has it that he tried to hide his pugilistic ambitions from his mother by carrying his boxing gloves inside his violin case.”

“Louis’s amateur debut, probably in early 1932, came as a light-heavyweight at age 17. A legend exists that before the fight Louis, only barely literate, wrote his name so large that there was no room for his last name “Barrow” – as a result becoming known as “Joe Louis” for the remainder of his boxing career. More likely, Louis simply omitted his last name to keep his boxing pursuits a secret from his mother.”

 “After this debut (a loss to future Olympian Johnny Miller), Louis compiled numerous amateur victories – eventually winning the club championship of his Brewster Street recreation center, the home of many aspiring Golden Gloves fighters.

Louis made his professional debut on July 4th, 1934 against Jack Kracken in the Bacon Casino on Chicago’s south side. “Louis earned $59 for knocking out Kracken in the first round. Louis won all 12 professional fights that year, 10 by way of knockout.”

“Although Louis’ management was finding him bouts against legitimate heavyweight contenders, no path to the title was forthcoming. Although boxing was not officially segregated, white Americans had become wary of the prospect of another black champion in the wake of Jack Johnson‘s highly unpopular “reign of terror” atop the heavyweight division, and an informal barrier existed that kept black boxers out of title contention.”

But after many wins, one loss (his first) and much “politics”, Joe got his title shot against the current champion James J. Braddock. Louis went on to defeat Braddock in 8th round.

“Louis’s victory was a seminal moment in African American history. Thousands of African Americans stayed up all night across the country in celebration.” Noted author and Harlem Renaissance alum Langston Hughes described Louis’s effect in these terms:

“Each time Joe Louis won a fight in those depression years, even before he became champion, thousands of colored Americans on relief or W.P.A., and poor, would throng out into the streets all across the land to march and cheer and yell and cry because of Joe’s one-man triumphs. No one else in the United States has ever had such an effect on Negro emotions – or on mine. I marched and cheered and yelled and cried, too.”

Louis was at the height of his boxing career when World War II called for his service but unfortunately the Uncle Sam that points at you from a poster, asking for your service is also the same Uncle Sam that collects on debt, regardless of your circumstances.

“Louis emerged from his wartime service significantly in debt. In addition to his looming tax bill – which had not been finally determined at the time, but was estimated at greater than $100,000”

Joe’s financial woes also forced him to fight far longer than he wished. “At the time of Louis’s initial retirement, the IRS was still completing its investigation of his prior tax returns… In May 1950, the IRS finished a full audit of Louis’s past returns and announced that, with interest and penalties, he owed the government more than $500,000. Louis had no choice but to return to the ring.”

Louis eventually worked out a deal with the IRS and was allowed to live comfortably in his later years.

During the late 60’s, in the midst of Civil Rights Movement, Louis was labeled as an Uncle Tom. Many African Americans saw his inactivity in the movement as act of abandonment and betrayal. Some might say that Louis served as a credit to his race on a broader stage. I choose to measure him not by his deeds as an activist but by his accomplishments in the ring and as a man.

Here is in a famed rematch against Max Schmelling: