Joseph Louis Barrow (May 13, 1914 – April 12, 1981), best known as Joe Louis, was an American professional boxer. He held the world heavyweight championship from 1937 to 1949, and is considered to be one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. Nicknamed the “Brown Bomber”, Louis helped elevate boxing from a decline in popularity in the post-Jack Dempsey era by establishing a reputation as an honest, hardworking fighter at a time when the sport was dominated by gambling interests. Louis’ championship reign lasted 140 consecutive months, during which he participated in 26 championship fights; a 27th fight, against Ezzard Charles, was a challenge to Charles’ heavyweight title and so is not included in Louis’ reign. Louis was victorious in 25 title defenses, a record for any division. In 2005, Louis was ranked as the #1 heavyweight of all-time by the International Boxing Research Organization, and was ranked #1 on The Ring magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Punchers of All-Time.
Louis was born on May 13, 1914, in a ramshackle dwelling on Bell Chapel Road, located about 1 mile off Alabama’s Route 50 and roughly 6 miles north of Lafayette in rural Chambers County, Alabama. Louis was the son of Munroe Barrow and Lillie (Reese) Barrow, the seventh of eight children. He weighed 11 pounds at birth. Both Louis’s parents were the children of former slaves, alternating between sharecropping and rental farming. Munroe was predominantly African American with some white ancestry, while Lillie was half Cherokee.
Louis spent twelve years growing up in rural Alabama, where little is known of his childhood. He suffered from a speech impediment and spoke very little until about the age of six. Munroe Barrow was committed to a mental institution in 1916 and, as a result, Joe knew very little of his biological father. Around 1920, Louis’s mother married Pat Brooks, a local construction contractor, having received word that Munroe Barrow had died while institutionalized (in reality, Munroe Barrow lived until 1938, unaware of his son’s fame).
In 1926, shaken by a gang of white men in the Ku Klux Klan, Louis’s family moved to Detroit, Michigan, forming part of the post-World War I Great Migration. Joe’s brother worked for Ford Motor Company (where Joe would himself work for a time at the River Rouge Plant) and the family settled into a home at 2700 Catherine (now Madison) Street in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood.
Louis attended Bronson Vocational School for a time to learn cabinet-making and his mother attempted to get him interested in playing the violin.
Louis’ cultural impact was felt well outside the ring. He is widely regarded as the first African American to achieve the status of a nationwide hero within the United States, and was also a focal point of anti-Nazi sentiment leading up to and during World War II. He was instrumental in integrating the game of golf, breaking the sport’s color barrier in America by appearing under a sponsor’s exemption in a PGA event in 1952.
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