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1932: Joe’s Violin
America was in the midst of the Great Depression. The stock market had crashed two years earlier, and the slowdown was so severe that even the banks couldn’t survive. Nearly ten thousand were on their way to shutting down, taking with them the life savings of millions of Americans. Billions of dollars evaporated. Countless businesses collapsed. People waited in long lines for bread or sought out charity kitchens for soup. The poorest of the poor, having lost their homes along with their money, pitched tents in local parks and slept outside.
In Detroit, the home of the nation’s car industry, seventeen-year-old Joe Louis Barrow was on his way to school, his hand-me-down clothes barely fitting his six-foot frame. Like virtually every kid in the neighborhood, Joe had nothing in his pockets. But unlike the others, he had a musical instrument under his arm.
“Here I was,” Joe later said, “big as a light heavyweight, going to Bronson Vocational School, carrying this little bit of a violin. You can imagine the kidding I had to take. I remember one time some guy called me a sissy when he saw me with the violin, and I broke it over his head.”
After the stock market crash, Americans line up for free food.
Joe’s friend Thurston McKinney was fighting his way through the amateur ranks as a lightweight boxer. He suggested that Joe ditch the violin and join him in the ring. After all, there was big money to be made in boxing, and not a penny to be had in playing a stringed instrument. Just look at the heavyweight champ, Jack Dempsey, Thurston said. He retired four years ago, and he’s still loaded. Joe wasn’t sold on the idea, mostly because he knew how hard his mother worked to pay for his violin lessons.
A young Joe Louis Barrow practices the violin.
As a small boy growing up in Alabama, Joe had been a quiet kid. While his brothers and sisters were outside playing, or picking cotton on the family patch, he would wander down to the nearby swamp and hunt snakes.
Joe’s parents, Lillie Reese and Munroe Barrow, were the children of former enslaved people and worked as sharecroppers outside the town of LaFayette. Joe was the seventh of eight children, living in a shack with a sagging roof and loose floorboards. “It looked like a good wind would have blown it down,” he said years later.
The strain of supporting a large family with the backbreaking work of picking cotton day in and day out landed Munroe in a psychiatric hospital when Joe was just two. Lillie was left to raise the children by herself for a few years until she married Pat Brooks, a widower with eight children of his own.
Joe fed the chickens and the hogs, and when he was old enough, joined the rest of his family under the blazing sun in the fields, bent over at the waist, dragging a seventy-pound sack of cotton behind him. At night he went to bed complaining about having to sleep in the same bed with two of his brothers.
The Barrow-Brooks clan was no different from hundreds of thousands of other struggling black families in the South. Joe’s family was accustomed to the hard life in Alabama, but they heard that better-paying jobs could be found in the bustling cities up north. And when word got out that the Ford Motor Company in Detroit was paying as much as $7 a day to work in its factories—more than twice what sharecropping paid—Pat figured it was worth a shot. How could things be any worse in Detroit than they were in Alabama? At least there would be electricity and indoor plumbing, two luxuries they’d never had in the South. And so by 1926, Joe and his family were settled in Detroit and Pat was working at Ford.
The Barrow-Brooks family was part of the Great Migration that saw more than a million-and-a-half African Americans leave the South and move north and west in search of jobs and safety from violent threats, most of them coming from white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. A second wave would follow twenty years later, taking more than five million African Americans with it.
Even in booming Detroit, however, all was not rosy for black residents. As African Americans poured into the city, its color line grew more restrictive, forcing blacks to live in certain neighborhoods. Joe’s family found housing in Black Bottom, the east side neighborhood named by 18th-century French explorers for the rich, black soil that had once been farmland. Block after block was lined with shops, schools, churches, bars, and pool halls, and the area offered a thriving nightlife of musicians and entertainers. Many of the homes were tenements that had been built quickly to accommodate the mass influx of Southern blacks.
A few years after moving to Detroit, Pat was out of work, having lost his job at the Ford plant when the stock market crashed in October 1929. It was all he and Lillie could do to hold on to their tenement.
Joe’s friend Thurston kept pushing the fight game. You’re a big, strong guy, he told Joe. If you stick with it, you’re sure to rake in more money than any fiddler would dream of earning. Besides, he said, “You got to have education to be a good one on the violin. You got to read notes.” Thurston had a point: Joe had no interest in learning music, and it would take years before he could develop his skills. Joe figured that he could learn how to box now and, if he was good at it, earn some money to help his family buy groceries.
Joe went with Thurston to the Brewster recreation center. The minute he walked in and heard the pitter-patter of speed bags and smelled the liniment oil, he was hooked.
“I looked at the ring, the punching bag, pulleys, the exercise mat, and it was love at first sight,” he said.
Boxing suited Joe’s temperament. He’d never been much of a talker; he had a stutter and preferred to keep to himself. And that’s how the boxers worked out. Alone. Plus, Joe was strong from all his odd jobs after school. He would haul fifty pounds of ice up two flights of stairs while his friend Freddie would stay downstairs watching the delivery horse and carriage. The work had made his shoulders, back, and thighs even more muscular.
Thurston suggested that Joe join the gym with the fifty cents his mother had given him for violin lessons. Joe didn’t like the idea. To him, spending that money on anything other than the violin would be the same as lying. But the allure of boxing was too strong.
Joe wound up spending the money on boxing lessons—and he used the twenty-five cents he made scrubbing floors for his sister, Emmarell, to cover his dues at the rec center. Then he told his mother what she didn’t want to hear: He was quitting school and taking a job at Briggs Manufacturing, the factory that made truck bodies for Ford. Within days, he was hard at work pushing two-hundred-pound truck bodies onto a conveyor belt. The metal shells were so heavy that Joe felt as if someone was knifing him in the back every time he loaded one—but the job paid $25 a week. Every week, he gave his paycheck to his mother to replace the money he’d misspent and help her run the house. And every day, after finishing work at five o’clock, he’d have a quick dinner at home before rushing out to the rec center.
One night, Joe got home from the gym around eleven, and Pat stopped him before he got to his bedroom.
Joe at the boxing gym.
“Where you been, Joe?” his stepfather asked.
“Over at the gym, working out.”
“I thought so. Well, I’m warnin’ you, Joe, if you keep on wasting your time down at that gym, and foolin’ around with boxing, you’re never gonna amount to nothing!”
Joe had a lot of respect for Pat—the man was taking any job he could find to raise his brood. But another friend at the gym, a more experienced boxer named Holman Williams, who’d been training Joe, gave his student a talking to.
“Joe,” he said, pointing at his friend’s large, powerful fists, “I think you’ve got what it takes.”
Joe chose to listen to Holman over his stepfather, mostly because he liked what Holman said. Determined to prove Pat wrong, Joe quit his job and began spending his days and nights at the gym. Holman coached him on the basics of boxing: how to throw a jab, the straight left hand that keeps opponents away, and how to follow it with a right cross, the powerful punch that could knock them out. Joe quickly discovered there was so much more to boxing than punching. There was strategy. Sure, Joe was strong, but the trick was to use his strength to exploit his opponent’s weaknesses.
In 1932, Joe fought an amateur match against Johnny Miler, a member of that year’s U.S. Olympic team. Joe thought he would beat him easily, but Miler knocked him down seven times in two rounds. Joe kept getting up, trying to weather the storm, but Miler was the better fighter.
“I was a badly beaten and bruised boy when I slipped into the house that night,” he said years later. “I didn’t want anybody to see me, so I ducked upstairs.”
Joe went to the gym the next day. “I tell you I was sore and aching, but my pride hurt more.”
When he returned home that night, Pat sat him down and persuaded him to give up the idea of boxing for a living. Dutiful Joe found a job at Ford’s River Rouge plant. Again, he was loading truck bodies onto a conveyor belt. But he’d soon had enough. “I couldn’t take it anymore,” he said. “I figured, if I’m going to hurt that much for twenty-five dollars a week, I might as well go back and try fighting again.” So he left Ford and prepared for the 1933 amateur Golden Gloves competition.
Holman worked him even harder than before. Atler Ellis, the owner of the gym, noticed that Joe had a strong right hand but didn’t use his left very well. Ellis tied Joe’s right to the ring post and told Thurston McKinney to box Joe.
“Tie me loose,” Joe yelled as Thurston wailed away with both hands, and Joe struggled to block the onslaught of punches using only his left.
The hard training began to pay off. Joe knocked out opponent after opponent and, in 1933, wound up winning Detroit’s Golden Gloves competition.
Having dropped his last name, Barrow, Joe Louis was making a name for himself. One of his most enthusiastic supporters was John Roxborough, a small-time black racketeer who’d gotten rich buying and selling real estate, and even richer by running an illegal lottery. Roxborough viewed Joe as a diamond in the rough—a kid who could be molded into a champion. Roxborough offered the young fighter a management deal: Live in my house, dine on steaks and chops instead of hot dogs, and I’ll give you $6 a week in pocket money. I’ll even set you up with your own boxing gear. When you turn pro, you can pay me with 25 percent of your ring earnings.
Joe knew deals like this didn’t come along every day, and he saw Roxborough as “well encased in dignity and legitimacy.” He agreed to Roxborough’s terms, and by the time the national amateur title fights came around in 1934, he was well fed, well rested, and ready to go. That year, he won both the national Golden Gloves and AAU championships as a light heavyweight, the category just below the prestigious heavyweight class.
It was obvious that Joe was ready for a higher level of competition, and Roxborough knew that representing him required a deeper knowledge of the fight game. Roxborough’s first move was finding a comanager who’d be able to get Joe some professional fights. He partnered with the well-connected Chicago businessman Julian Black and together, they stood out as two of the first black managers in the sport. Roxborough then found Joe a trainer, another black man, ex-boxer Jack Blackburn.
Joe, a light heavyweight, with the 1934 Golden Gloves champions (second from right).
The hard-drinking, bald-headed Blackburn weighed barely 135 pounds, but he had never walked away from a fight, be it in a ring or bar or on the street. He carried a souvenir from his violent past, a razor-deep scar running all the way from his left cheekbone to the corner of his bottom lip, and he had served nearly five years in prison for killing a man during an argument. Blackburn had been in more than a hundred pro bouts, many of them against far bigger opponents. When he hung up his gloves, he became a trainer, and by the time he met Joe, he had already turned several white boxers into champions. But he was reluctant to take Joe on because he knew that black heavyweights couldn’t make it in the sport. The racism dividing America was rampant throughout society, and the world of boxing was no different.
Joe knew all about bigotry. He’d grown up in the Jim Crow South, where blacks were forced to live separate from whites. Blacks went to “colored” schools, lived in “colored” housing, and used “colored” facilities. Throughout the South, COLORED and WHITES ONLY signs were posted at train stations, bus depots, restaurants, parks and beaches, restrooms, and movie theaters. According to the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, such division was legal as long as the facilities were “separate but equal.” But the truth was that the black facilities, while separate, were anything but equal to their white counterparts.
The bigotry wasn’t just unfair, it was violent. By the early 1920s, at least 1,200 African Americans were lynched in the South—that is, killed by white mobs in a frenzy of racist vigilante justice. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) lobbied Congress to pass anti-lynching legislation called the Dyer Bill, but it was defeated in the Senate in 1922, and again in 1923 and 1924.
During the Great Depression, even as President Franklin Roosevelt created millions of jobs for unemployed Americans, blacks continued to suffer discrimination in the workplace and throughout all other aspects of society. When black families took car trips throughout the South, they had to be aware of safe places to eat, sleep, and stop for gas. Since many establishments excluded them, black travelers packed food and extra gasoline in the car and, if there was room in the trunk, brought along portable toilets. They also knew to avoid certain communities after dark. These places were called sundown towns, and their residents went so far as to post billboards targeting African Americans that read, DON’T LET THE SUN GO DOWN ON YOU HERE. In other words, don’t be seen in our town after dark.
As for boxing, the sport was controlled by white promoters—they were the ones who arranged the matches and paid the boxers—and no whites wanted to see a black man become champion, whether in the South, the North, or anywhere else. Blackburn knew that Joe’s talent didn’t matter; white promoters would never give him a shot at the title. Blackburn himself had never gotten one, despite having been a top boxer in his day. Instead of earning big money, he’d fought in the back rooms of speakeasies, often paid with nothing more than a round of drinks. But when he saw the way Joe punched—when he witnessed the power in those brick-like fists—he changed his mind. This kid was worth it.
Bus stations in the Jim Crow South separate black and white Americans.
Cool as a Frozen Cucumber
In June 1934, Joe’s team—Roxborough, Black, and Blackburn—decided it was time for their fighter to graduate out of the amateur ranks. As a professional, Joe would finally earn some money. Roxborough and Black brought him to Chicago and rented him a room in chef Bill Bottom’s apartment.
From the start, Joe had great affection for his new trainer, Jack Blackburn. Joe nicknamed him Chappie—and followed his every command. Chappie got Joe out of bed at dawn to run six miles around Washington Park. When Joe finished, Chappie let him go back to bed and sleep until eleven, at which point Bottom would feed him a special hot breakfast of three broiled lamb chops, two soft-boiled eggs, two slices of toast, a large honeydew melon, and a cup of tea. The new regimen wrapped Joe in a solid layer of muscle. The young fighter soon grew out of his light heavyweight body and into a six-foot-two, 180-pound frame. He had become a true heavyweight.
At the gym, Chappie schooled Joe on the aspects of boxing that champions had down cold: positioning his feet, balancing his body weight, using momentum to triple his power. Chappie drilled Joe on shuffling backward and forward and on the most effective ways of blocking punches.
“There’s no easy road to the top,” he told Joe. “And for a colored fighter, it’s even tougher. You’ve got to be good—lots better than the other man … You can’t get nowhere nowadays trying to outpoint fellows in the ring. It’s mighty hard for a colored boy to win decisions. The dice is loaded against you. You gotta knock ’em out and keep knocking ’em out to get anywheres. Let your right fist be the referee.”
Text copyright © 2019 by John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro