image of Harlemites celebrating Joe's victory with inset of Joe walking in Harlem with his wife
from the nytimes of 2/22/08Joe Louis and Harlem, Connecting Again in a Police Athletic League Gym by JOHN ELIGON
It was the evening of June 22, 1938, and nearly everyone in Harlem was doing the same thing. Huddled around radios on their fire escapes and roofs, in their kitchens and living rooms, people were listening to the heavyweight boxing match between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling.
“Harlem was in stereo,” said Representative Charles B. Rangel, who grew up in Harlem and was 8 years old at the time of the fight. “Everyone had on the same station, the same fight. You heard the same screaming and yelling when he was winning, and the same sighs when he got hit.”
Louis once captivated the minds and hearts of New Yorkers, especially those in Harlem’s thriving black community. But as New York’s mantle as boxing’s premier stage ebbed over the past several decades, so too did Louis’s legacy in the city.
On Thursday, HBO and Everlast, a company that specializes in boxing equipment, took a step toward rekindling the memory of Louis in New York City. They opened the Joe Louis Boxing Gym in the basement of the Police Athletic League building on Manhattan Avenue near 119th Street in Harlem.
“I think it’s a wonderful tribute to my father,” Joe Louis Barrow Jr., Louis’s son, said by telephone. “It will continue to keep the Joe Louis connection to New York, and specifically Harlem.”
Though he was born, as Joe Louis Barrow, in Chambers County, Ala., and lived most of his life in Detroit and Chicago, Louis rose to international prominence in New York.
Louis’s first fight in New York was in 1935. His promoter brought him to the city because the owners of Madison Square Garden controlled the heavyweight title and he wanted to get his fighter a shot.
Louis lost his first fight against Schmeling, who was from Germany, at Yankee Stadium in 1936. A year later, he won the heavyweight title for the first time, by knocking out Jim Braddock in Chicago, and returned to New York to defend his title. In 1938 came a highly anticipated rematch against Schmeling.
This fight, also at Yankee Stadium, was billed as the United States versus Nazi Germany. It was a black American, of all people, carrying the torch for a country that was deeply segregated.
Mr. Barrow called his father one of the true pioneers of race relations in the United States, saying that even white Americans cheered for him.
“That was the single event that allowed him to transcend from a heavyweight champion to a true American hero,” Mr. Barrow said of the rematch.
Louis knocked out Schmeling in the first round, and the streets of Harlem erupted. According to an article in The New York Times the day after the fight, people jumped on cars and pushed over traffic signs. The police commissioner ordered officers to reroute traffic on Seventh Avenue between 125th and 145th Streets, saying, “This is their night, let them have their fun.”
People raced to the Hotel Theresa on the corner of 125th Street and Seventh Avenue, now known as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, trying to catch a glimpse of Louis returning from the fight.
“It was madness when the fight was over,” Mr. Rangel said.
Still, The Times reported, there were only 13 minor injuries and most of the celebration, including the one in Yorkville, the German-American quarter around East 86th Street, was peaceful.
Louis, who died in 1981, later said a farewell of sorts to New York. In 1951, he was knocked out by the much younger Rocky Marciano at Madison Square Garden in his final professional bout.
Many of Louis’s accomplishments in New York are captured in the documentary “Joe Louis: America’s Hero ... Betrayed,” which is to be broadcast on HBO on Saturday night.
Today, it is difficult to find a relic of Louis’s time in New York, where he fought more than two dozen times. The area surrounding Madison Square Garden is known as Joe Louis Plaza, as noted on street signs that thousands of New Yorkers probably walk past each day without a glance.
The Police Athletic League building in Harlem now has a plaque at its front entrance that reads, “Home of the Joe Louis Boxing Gym.” Inside hangs a painting of Louis by Duhirwe Rushemeza, a Brooklyn-based artist. The newly renovated boxing gym has fluorescent lighting, walls of bright red and glossy gray brick, a new ring with black canvas and a glass case holding pictures of professional boxers like Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Zab Judah.
Mr. Barrow said his father often reminisced about the time he spent in New York, about the Harlem night life and the people who yearned for just a glimpse of him in the street.
“He loved the energy in New York,” Mr. Barrow said. “He loved Harlem particularly because in those days it was a very hopping town. New York was a place where he really made his career.”