Saturday, June 22, 2024

‘We needed a hero like Joe Louis’

QUESTIONS & ANSWERS: JOYCE BARROW HENDERSON

Joe Louis

Legendary boxer Joe Louis will be honored May 17 with a proclamation presented by Clark County Commissioner William McCurdy. It is a well-deserved honor: the Brown Bomber’s professional accomplishments and activist commitment to the Black community gave strength to scores of African-Americans, who were looking for socioeconomic advancement while fighting for equality in a world of injustice. 

Louis’ fearlessness inside the ring — where he reigned as heavyweight champion from 1934 until his retirement in 1949 — was equaled outside of it: he not only became part of the entertainment fabric of Las Vegas, but was a key figure in the signing of the historic Moulin Rouge Agreement, which lifted segregationist practices and allowed Black people to work, gamble and stay in casino hotels. 

Joe Louis with his daughter Joyce Barrow Henderson

Las Vegas Black Image sat down with Louis’ daughter, Joyce Barrow Henderson — a longtime Las Vegas resident and 30-year veteran of the city’s Parks and Recreation department — about the upcoming recognition and her father’s legacy.

How do you feel about your dad’s upcoming honor? 

My family and I are very excited. May 13 would have been my dad’s 110th birthday — and for our family, it’s a celebration of his life, but more so a call-to-action for Black people to make sure his legacy lives. When we look at the state of the world and our community, we need heroes like Joe Louis.

Most people remember Joe Louis as the heavyweight champion of the world. Who was he outside of the ring? 

When he held the heavyweight championship … Black people in general were not seen as human beings. We were entering different doors to spend our money. So, if you look at his career, it was [among the few times] that a Black man was seen as somebody. Moreover, seen as a hero. 

Joe Louis with his daughter Joyce Barrow Henderson

I don’t believe there will ever be a time in history where we needed a hero more in this country like we needed Joe Louis. His historic fight against Max Schmeling at the pinnacle of World War II was more than a fight inside the ring for Black people — it was a fight against white supremacy. For my dad to go into that ring and win, that was a lot on him. I can’t even imagine — and I sit and think about it a lot. I think about how some of today’s athletes step into the political realm, stand up against injustice, and voice their concerns for us as a community. 

Joyce Barrow Henderson with her mother Martha Louis

My dad did not kick down doors — but the doors opened, and he walked in. Where he was welcomed, he had no tolerance for a segregated audience and mistreatment. He would shut that down and he did right because it was the right thing to do. He was an example of what right looked like and established a map to break down racial discrimination barriers. When we say, “Standing on the shoulders of those who came before us,” he is the cornerstone. 

Joyce Barrow Henderson and her husband Sean in front of the Joe Louis Greenway in Detroit.

I think even Muhammad Ali’s family will tell you: if there was no Joe Louis, Ali could not have said, “I’m not going to war.” This is because Joe Louis did go to war. Ali had the option to demand a million-dollar purse because Joe Louis fought James Braddock and paid a monetary fee just for the opportunity to become the heavyweight champion of the World. Otherwise, the white establishment wouldn’t have allowed a Black man to fight. My dad had to give Braddock 10 percent of his purse for the next ten years for that opportunity. So, when we talk about opportunities and moving the needle — it started with Joe Louis.

Is this honor the first time your father Joe Louis has been recognized with a Clark County proclamation? 

Yes, and we are so pleased. But like I say: we as Black people bury our heroes, their lessons, and wisdom. We can move our children so much further if we keep the triumphant stories of our heroes alive. I have to say that it was my daughter, who really started digging into the history of her grandfather, that encouraged me to speak on all the troubles of racism he had to fight outside the ring for the benefit of humanity. I initially didn’t want to just give my daughter the down and dirty version of racism in America and its history. I wanted to take her through it so she could see that discrimination against Black people didn’t just start with slavery and end with the Civil Rights Movement. There is a whole systematic movement that has little to do with the color of one’s skin. and more to do with economic advancement. I want her to understand that to just say, “racism is only based on the color of your skin” is not true. And that could be shame that someone wears every day as you look at your reflection in a mirror.

Do you feel that Joe Louis has been forgotten? 

I just started seeing lists of legendary athletes, and my dad’s name was not on those lists. He might be taken into consideration if I “threw his name into a hat.” 

I had to ask myself how this happens. He was the greatest heavyweight boxing champion of all time. And his record still holds today. But it’s also the other things he contributed — like financing the great tennis pro Althea Gibson’s trip to Wimbledon in 1951. She was the first Black athlete to cross the color line of international tennis.. He was a very generous man, and he was also the only Black man to help finance the development of the historic Moulin Rouge — the first integrated hotel and casino in the country. Later in my dad’s life, after the Moulin Rouge Agreement, he became a host at Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino, and to this day a statue stands in the casino to honor him and all that he contributed to the world and to Las Vegas. The most important thing about my dad is that I hope Black people remember our connectivity as a people. And how important it is for us to work together and to support each other to rise to the top.

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