- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2006

LAFAYETTE, Ala. — Down a couple of skinny dirt roads, some six miles from downtown, behind a chain link fence surrounding a modest clapboard house, a sign notes the “Birthplace of Joe Louis.”

You need good directions and some patience to find evidence that the late boxing legend was born in this east Alabama town near the Georgia border. It’s even news to some of the 3,000-plus residents.

“I heard he was from here the other day,” 21-year-old Karlo Burton said, “but I didn’t believe it.”

It’s true. He was born here in 1914 as Joe Louis Barrow. Town leaders have been trying to raise the local profile of LaFayette’s most famous former resident, but it has been a slow process.

An architect putting together a new courthouse building downtown wondered a few years ago whether there was a local artist who might come up with something for the public entry plaza.

“I said, ‘No, but we do have a local celebrity that was born here,’” District Judge Calvin Milford said. “When I told him [it was] Joe Louis, he said, ‘You’re kidding. I thought he was from Detroit.’”

It’s a common mistake. Louis’ family moved to Detroit when he was 10. His ties to that city are far more conspicuous.

The NHL’s Detroit Red Wings play in Joe Louis Arena, known as “The Joe.” Down the street from the arena is a 24-foot bronze arm and fist, sculpted in Louis’ honor in the 1980s.

And in LaFayette, located about 80 miles east of Montgomery?

They’re working on it.

The immediate goal is a statue, then someday perhaps a Joe Louis museum, Milford said.

He said an Alabama sculptor has said the price tag for a Louis sculpture would be $50,000. In two years, the town has raised less than $10,000, the judge said. The statue would be slightly larger than life size and be erected outside the courthouse on U.S. 431, the main road through town.

Louis’s legacy doesn’t need much help nationally. He successfully defended his heavyweight championship a record 25 times from 1937 to 1949 before retiring, including a famed one-round knockout of Nazi Germany’s Max Schmeling in 1938. Louis is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and his son said a wreath-laying ceremony will be held there tomorrow to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the boxer’s death.

A memory refresher in Louis’ hometown couldn’t hurt. Like Burton, Dorothy Bell and several others were unable to answer the question: Do you know where Joe Louis was born?

“I know him, but I didn’t know he was born here,” said Bell, buying a few groceries before work.

Louis’ likely birthplace — not everyone agrees on this — was a ramshackle, four-room sharecropper’s house on a parcel of land in decidedly unmountainous Buckalew Mountain. It’s not easy to find. And beware the owner’s Rottweiler if you do.

Milford is realistic about the site’s allure for tourists.

“It’s real out of the way,” he said. “Even if you’re passing through down 431, you’re not going to go that far off the beaten path to see it.”

Louis’ family moved several times within the LaFayette area before heading to Detroit. His father, Munroe Barrow, a cotton picker, was committed to the Searcy State Hospital for the Insane in south Alabama when Louis was 2, dying there in 1959. His mother, Lillie, later married Peter Brooks, and they moved to Detroit.

The boxer’s son, Joe Louis Barrow Jr., visited LaFayette doing research for a book he wrote on his father.

“It’s a very important part of my father’s history and our family’s history,” said Barrow, executive director of the nonprofit group First Tee in Jacksonville, Fla.

There still are a number of Barrows around LaFayette.

Velma Barrow is related only by marriage, but she remembers it was a big event in LaFayette (pronounced luh-fet) whenever Louis fought. Plenty gathered at her house to listen on her father’s Philco radio while others — black and white — huddled around a radio at Collins Drug Store.

“People back in those days were proud of that,” she said. “There weren’t too many people that had radios. All of us would gather around the radio and listen to the fight.”

A local resident, Bobby Louis Finley, whose mother was a Barrow, said he would like to see Louis get more recognition in his hometown because “he was a great man and he deserves something.”

The Chambers County Museum, located next to the town dump and across from the county jail, does have a section of one room devoted to Louis. It contains furniture that Louis bought for his mother’s Detroit home, along with a variety of books and a framed list of his fights.

It’s unclear whether Louis returned to his hometown. But he apparently never lost his fondness for the area.

Bill Robinson, a LaFayette native who still lives in his hometown, recalled interviewing Louis as a sportswriter for the Atlanta Journal. They talked until 5 a.m., mostly about the region where both were born, Robinson said. He worried at first because he was keeping the heavyweight champion up all night talking.

“It finally dawned on me that Louis kept me up because he wanted to hear me say, ‘Oak Bowery, Buckalew Mountain and Camp Hill, ‘ ” Robinson said, referring to local communities.

Now LaFayette is trying to reconnect with its famous son, something the Barrows welcome.

“My sense is that would be special for Alabama, and it would certainly be special for our family,” Joe Louis Barrow Jr. said.

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