Camera Rolls: 317:24-26
Sound Rolls: 317:13-14
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Billy Rowe , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on February 15, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
—twenty-four, sound roll thirteen, on Billy Rowe.
OK. First let's talk about, even before he came to New York, even before you met him, tell me how folks, yourself especially, started to hear about Joe Louis, what were you starting to hear out in the, before he even came to New York?
Well, the word was out that Joe Louis was the sensation that people would begin to hear about, there was word that he had broken down the headline spaces in the daily newspapers, and was being quoted and talked about. Everybody says, Who is this fellow, gosh, wow, wow, you know. Everybody wanted to hear about, not only just hear about him, but they wanted to see Joe Louis. But those weren't the days when you could jump on a train or a plane and go out, see a fight, because it was kind of in the, and the Depression was on, I believe, then, and things weren't that easy. But very fast the name itself turned out to be, we got the feeling that, here at last, on top of Jack Johnson, that here at last was a fighter with pride and purpose.
What was it about him that people were hearing, I mean...?
His manner of, it seemed that the press gave his manner of farming a whole different outlay than it ordinarily would be for prizefighters, because prizefighters were not that great in peoples' minds in that division, the heavyweight champion division. They were all, they seemed to be very kind to Joe Louis, but it turned out that they weren't kind to Joe Louis, they were really stating facts, because there was this nice, nice fella, there was this fella with strength, and there was this fella who was walk—going into rings and knocking people out, so everybody in New York looked forward to seeing this Herculean character, who suddenly stepped into the ring and started fighting.
How did the white, how did the white folks feel about it?
Well, the whites [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , it seemed that those we were in contact with had the same feeling. Fighting was something that people enjoyed or liked to see, why, I don't know. That had come along at that time, and they weren't, any of those you even came in contact with, that you got the feeling hey, here's a guy who's, or a woman, a person who's prejudiced. You, the person either was for or against fighters, regardless of what their color was, regardless of what they knew. That's the feeling we got at that moment. Things seemed to sorta, coming together. Harlem itself, of course, was a real great place in those days, it was the Mecca of all of our [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , sooner or later we all wanted to come to New York. And—
Excuse me, can you look at me a little bit more when you talk?
We need to stop so I can—
Camera roll twenty-four.
Before Joe Louis came on the scene, at that time, in the Depression, people were very wary of black boxers 'cause of Jack Johnson. We'll have known, or we'll talk about Jack Johnson in the film so you don't have to tell me about him.
—but what was it about Joe Louis that changed all that?
There seemed to be, in my feeling about Joe, he seemed to be just a nice person. He wasn't boring, he didn't bore you with stories, or he didn't run off doing funny things. He had an idea, all the things he wanted to do, and he'd say to somebody, this is what you're going to do. That's how we became good friends, I presume, because, being, having been with the _Pittsburgh Courier_ this long, long length of time at that point, and sort of, as they used to call me the 'colored Walter Winchell'. Joe didn't like that, you know, and he said, He's not the colored Walter Winchell, he's Billy Rowe. And people would say when he was going, we'd go around together all the time, I'd meet him, and [laughs] they'd say, You don't want to go running around with this guy, this guy's a [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , he writes you up, you know. He said, Well, that's why I'm going around with him, because he couldn't write me up without writing himself up. [laughs] He was that kind of a person, just a nice, easy-going person.
Do you know much about, can you tell me about Chappie, and Roxborough, and Black, I mean, wasn't it unusual for a fighter like that to have an all-black management team?
By all means, that in itself was history.
Can you tell me about, can you start that sentence over again?
That, that of course is history, and they were so, they were quite unusual themselves, they were not exactly like managers usually are. Joe Louis was their main eye thing, their eye, their arm, everything was for Joe Louis, and Joe realized that, and Joe, I think he felt it.
But how was it for the rest of the world, that here was this black fighter, and he had black managers, was that odd, was that a different kind of thing?
No, I think it brought on a kind of respect for him, that the others-
Now, you have, again, please start off by saying, If they have a black, you know, that, By having all black management—
Yeah, by having all-black managers, naturally, sort of, even gave us another feeling, this to us was the greatest such thing to happen, black managers, because Madison Square Gardens and the rest, the people always controlled all that, with all the fighters, white or black. For Joe Louis to come into town, just the other way around, it was a real great feeling for us, we felt that we had become a part, really become a part of the whole deal.
Great, good. What kind of, what kind of things did Joe Louis, you know, he's a big hero for a lot of people, what kind of things did he do, specific things, and you've told me about them. Let's stay in the '30s. What kinds of things did he do to kind of, overcome discrimination?
Well, Joe Louis, in his battle against discrimination, was carried deep into the whole system, because of the fact that he was this great fighter that everybody wanted to see, so Joe could speak out and make certain demands by just being Joe Louis, he didn't have to, he was not a fighting, outspoken person, he was just there. You just got that feeling, both white and black, got that feeling, and of course in those days the word was "colored," and it wasn't a matter of being black, or saying that you were black. And, it's—
So, what kinds of things did he do? And again, could you look at me a little bit more when you—
Joe, Joe Louis, to me and most people, of course, was a silent warrior, he would go right to the top of whatever was necessary to make changes. If it had to do with boxing, he would go to the boxing promoters and would make the changes. There were [sic] a case quite some time after he got to be the champion and became Joe Louis, where he wanted to break down discrimination in golf, and he didn't go beating around the bush—
OK, again, we have to talk about the '30s, but you told me stuff, you just told me earlier.
That was in the '30s.
There were the hotels, and things like that, those are the kinds of incidents I'm talking about, the quiet stuff, so, can we start again and say, just, some of the things Joe would do to break down discrimination, just in his own world.
Well, for instance, Joe Louis was, you know, he was always invited to the finest hotels in America, but Joe would not accept lodging at a hotel if that hotel discriminated against, if I couldn't get a room at that hotel the next day by myself, he would not accept a room that night from management because he was Joe Louis. And I suppose it got around, people began to talk about it, and that's how he did that particular situation, took care of that one.
You know, you told me once in a previous conversation, you said that Joe, you felt like Joe, I think we were talking about the Depression, that Joe Louis fit the times. What did you mean by that, what does that mean?
Well, the Depression was on and Joe was getting a big, you know, his salary, the salary they quoted in the papers for fighting and how much you got for knocking somebody out, was a big thing, and we'd never heard of that kind of money before. He'd pass out dollars to people, to guys on the street who would beg him for a cup of coffee or something like that, and there were times when he didn't have money in his pockets, so he would take it out of his friends' pockets. He'd always give it back to us, though.
Great. Why do you think Joe was such a big hero for black people, what was it, with all the heroes that there were in society, in black society, why Joe Louis, why a boxer?
Well, I don't think it, just because he was a boxer, I think that it was because of Joe Louis just being Joe Louis, he was—it's strange, he was never, he was a massive person as far as writing was concerned and as far as people talking about him, radio and television, which did a lot on him in those days, which was quite different from before. He was still, like, very simple. He would still shake your hand, he would shake the hand of a guy in the gutters as quick as he'd shake the hand of a guy who was coming out of a major airplane situation. I think that's why—
But people, people on the street, people in the South, people didn't know about that, why did they sit there listening to their radios, what was it that kept them glued to their radios for Joe Louis?
Because they, they, the people who didn't look at television or didn't have television, but they all read, they read , they read the , they read the , and they read and things. Those things, from, they got the message, and they added to it, because it was a time when you felt that you wanted to feel good, and Joe Louis made us feel good.
OK. When he finally came to New York, he fought—
Let's change mag tracks.
Take three, change camera roll.
So, tell me what the reaction in Harlem was when they heard about Mussolini in Ethiopia, and even though it was thousands of miles away, it seems to me people took it very personally. What was that about? Tell me about Harlem when they heard about that.
Well, as far as Harlem and Ethiopia is concerned, it suddenly gave us an understanding, began to know about ourselves, where we came from, and the pride in the fact that here was a gentleman who was the head of a nation, and you never had that opportunity very much before. The whole, I think the whole country itself, was in awe about, Ethiopia, and it just rubbed off on us naturally, we all felt very proud about that.
Yeah, but when Hitler, when Hitler marched on, I mean, when Mussolini marched on them, how did people feel about it then? This very powerful white nation marching on this...
Well, when Mussolini marched on Ethiopia, a number of us were ready to go. Put on our uniforms, grab our guns. It gave, it brought Mussolini into America, into black America, with a completely different attitude that was going, that was for him all along. Before that time, and as far as it was concerned, with Ethiopia it was devastating, mentally devastating.
So, when Joe came to New York, he fought an Italian, just about the same time, Primo Carnera, the Italian giant. So here's this black man fighting this Italian, did the people in Harlem, did the black, did the black folks, did they see a significance in that that related to this Ethiopia thing?
I couldn't, couldn't really frankly say yes or no to that particular statement. I know that they were all, they were pulling for Joe Louis, so you automatically assume, particularly us newspaper guys, we assume that they were for Joe Louis because he was Joe Louis, not because he was fighting a person who had to do with war against Ethio—a nation which had, against Ethiopia.
Do you remember that fight, did you go to that fight?
Oh yeah, that was the first one, I think, that I went to, or it might have been the first one, because I was asked to get, take the names of people by the , that I was working for at that point, to take the names of the people that, coming in from out of town to the fight. In fact, the funny, the , actually, that got me my job, it was suddenly made permanent now because I was supposed to know everybody. When I told Joe, I said, I gotta talk to you after the fight, he said, Well, come to the dressing room, I says, I don't know, how they going to let me in? He said, Just tell them you got the OK from me. And he laughed, soon enough, from then on it worked out. We became real friendly behind all that.
Do you remember the fight itself?
The fight with Carnera?
Oh yes, I remember the fight itself, because, actually, the feeling was, there was a great chance for this man beating Joe, because he was big, and strong, and he talked a lot and what have you. And the streets, everybody was waiting to see what happened, and you know, of course, when Joe won, then we sort of marched, almost like a shackle, a practical march down 10th Ave. Almost, they said, but we would never let Joe get into that atmosphere, despite the fact that, there wasn't a feeling that anybody was going to harm Joe Louis, but you never know what could happen. So when I looked around for the automobile, he was gone. [laughs]
What was the reaction in Harlem after he won?
Oh, wow, it was a holiday.
OK. Did you know his family very well? Did you know his family, his mother, his sisters, did you know—
Yeah, I knew them pretty, pretty good.
What kind of background did Joe Louis come from?
A regular, a real Southern-type, a real family Southern-type family, I always had that feeling. It was always just, complete love and understanding in that family, I don't recall any antagonism at any time. It was just something warm. I have a picture of her which I'll show you, and she was such a nice lady.
Were they, were they afraid for him, were they nervous about him fighting? I mean, when they went in the ring against Carnera, like, this great, big, giant guy, and there's Joe. Were they, how did they feel about him, were they afraid he would get hurt?
I doubt that seriously, I think that everybody had a feeling, except his mother, had a feeling that Joe was going to win the fight. I always felt that she had a certain fear, because, I don't ever recall seeing her at a fight.
Can you say that again and say "his mother," because we don't know who you're talking about.
Well, in fact, I don't ever recall seeing his mother at a fight. Now, she might have been to some, but I've never seen her at one. In fact, I don't ever remember, I've never seen her at the training camp, but she loved her boy.
Now, tell me about, you've told me a lot about that first Schmeling fight, and what was going on at the training camp, and, and all that sort of thing. Tell me, you had, there was a different feeling about that one, tell me about that one. Actually, ultimately you ended up getting thrown out of camp, right? So tell us what was going on there before that first Schmeling fight.
Well, I think that, just to start with, now, a lot of us believe and I certainly believe, that the Schmeling fight was the best thing that ever happened to Joe Louis, it made Joe Louis return to being Joe Louis, the kind of Joe Louis that he was, because originally, he was under the impression that this was going to be a knockover, no problem, knock this guy out and so on, down the line. Even changed his training camp, which of course was different from what we expected, from even what his trainer wanted, as I understand, and he was kind of fooling around, you know. Joe was never an outlandish guy, and never really that type of flamboyant person, but he began to get, feel that way, and we talked to him about it, and he told me, You don't have to be here, you know. So I left, and I went up, way up, in your neighborhood, and coming back, when the fight was on and he got whipped, I said, Good for him, because I betted [sic], I'd made a bet that he was going to lose this fight.
Can you start over and tell me, in more detail, tell me, go back and tell me about where you were when you heard that fight, tell me, were you in the car, were you home, where were you when you heard that fight, and tell me what you were thinking when you were listening to that fight.
Well, when I was listening to that fight, I was-
When you were listening to which fight, you have to tell me—
When I listened to the Joe Louis battle with—
Excuse me, you're going to have to look up...
I'm trying to, I got, I'm getting—
Would you like to take a break? Stop, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ]
[ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ]
Yeah, 'cause I got a little...
Would you like to take a break?
Yeah, I got a little screwed up on that.
OK, so, now go back and tell me a little bit more about Joe's attitude, and how he'd won all those fights in the training camp before the first Schmeling fight, what he was feeling, what he thought he was going to do.
Actually, I believe that at that stage of his life, Joe really believed that he was invincible, and that there wasn't anybody that could beat him, so he did a number of things that his trainer did not want him to do, in fact, he wanted to train, almost like training himself. He changed the camp, and everything, and this was devastating to all of us, and we would say things to him, and he would then say things like, "I'm the fighter, you know, you don't, you don't have to be here, see." So I said, "Well, I'll get out of here." He said, "Well, OK. You want me—" he even asked me if he wanted me to buy him some gas, I'll always remember that, and it went on. So, when the fight was scheduled, and I did not have a ticket to go to the fight, and I wasn't going to ask him for a ticket, like as usual, and so we went, I think we wound up, wound up in the bluffs or someplace, we, my wife and I went, 'cause we were driving back during the fight. And so of course, it happened to him, he got knocked out, and I had made a bet on him, even, I had bet, bet, a friend of mine bought a shirt, so I won this shirt, but I've never worn it, by the way.
You have to go back and tell me that again, because it's not clear to me who you bet on.
I bet against Joe, I bet that he was going to lose 'cause of the way he was acting, and what have you. I never wore the, bet a shirt, never, never worn it, in fact I think I might have gotten that shirt, because it was the saddest day that ever happened to us who were on Joe's team. Harlem itself was, as you know, you probably remember, recall, if you were around my age, and you'd find out that there was great sadness within the community, but it was still the best thing that ever happened to Joe Louis, because he came back to being Joe Louis again. I went down to the hotel to see him and his jaw was all swollen out, he says, Well, you won the fight. I said, I wasn't in there fighting. Behind that, he says, Well, come on in if you're going to come in, if you're not I'm going to close the door, 'cause I'm going to bed.
Great, OK, thank you.
[ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ]
Yeah, we have about twelve feet.
Change camera roll twenty-six, sound fourteen, take five.
Now I want to talk about the championship. When he won the championship, what was the feeling in the community, but how did he feel, because he had been pretty humiliated by, by Max Schmeling, so was, even though he was champion, was there kind of a taint to it, was there... tell me about that, tell me about, first tell me about that he, you know, when he became champion, what that...
Well, actually, I got the feeling that, most of the people felt sorry for Joe Louis rather than anything else, because-
About, about what? See, you have to place me in time, I don't know what you're talking about.
I keep forgetting that. Him winning the championship didn't really rub off on everybody, because it didn't rub off on him. Joe never felt that he was a champion after that fight. He wanted to get back to Schmeling, and prove that he was a champion, and it rubbed off on all of us, we all began, particularly those of us who were close to Joe Louis, we all could say yeah, he's right about that, he's gotta beat this guy before he becomes a champion, because Schmeling was saying things and Hitler was saying things, and all-
Can we cut for a second? There's something...
OK, so where were we?
Yeah, you know, when Joe became champion out there in Chicago, we felt good that he did, and the group of us raised a lot of sand, a lot of hoopla, happy happy happy, but then Joe came on the scene, and he said that he didn't feel like a champion, because he wouldn't feel like the champion until he'd had the return match with Max Schmeling, and that, we all accepted that. We went along with Joe on that to keep people from saying that he was some sort of a paper champion or something, or what. There were those who believed that, he wasn't really, we felt he wasn't really the champion because of this, he had been beaten. He had been, and was the kind of person we believed in, if he said it, it was gospel, you see, it wasn't us saying well, oh, he is a champion anyway, so, nope, he says OK, so we all kept waiting for the return match.
And so, when the return match came, what was his feeling, how did he approach that return match? When he...
Well, Joe approached that, he was almost a silent type of, you could call, Joe was a silent heavyweight champion, or he wasn't a bragging one or anything like that. This, he accepted, it appeared to us that here's a man with a job to do, and he was going to do it, you see, and that's the way it went along. Schmeling was still the top dog, and on top of everything, so to speak, I mean, in Europe and even here. If there were any bigots around, there seemed to be very few bigots around when Joe Louis was the heavyweight champion of the world, they all felt that Schmeling had done his job. The good-
Wait a second, what I want to know is Joe, I mean, if he didn't feel like a champion, when he trained for the second Schmeling fight, how was it different from the first one? How did he go at it, was he obsessed, was he angry, was he, tell me, tell me about what Joe's state of mind was going into that second fight.
His, Joe felt he was facing a purpose, he had a purpose, he had something to do. He said he was going to do it, and he gave all—
No, you have to start over and tell me he was going to do what, 'cause again—
That he was going to retain, he was going to get back the championship. As far as he was concerned, he wasn't the champion, he needed to get it back from Schmeling, although he was the champion, as you can recall. But that's the kind of person he was, he was extremely honest, emotionally and vocally he was an honest person. If Joe said it to you, that was it, and that's what everybody was sort of waiting for, and that's what the "Harlemites," so to speak, all over the world, were looking forward to. They were looking forward to Joe Louis retaining a championship, or to really putting the proper feeling and the proper light on the championship which he, of course, owned.
So, what did he do to Max Schmeling?
[laughs] Well, what did he, heh, I think he beat him. [laughs]
No, no, but tell me, when he got in the ring with Max Schmeling, what did he...?
When he, it was, when he got in the ring and the bell rang, it was all business. He went right at him, and, as you know, exactly what happened, he knocked him out so fast, it was unbelievable the fight was over, then Harlemites, we all were saying it, Joe Louis is a champion.
Great, great, great. You once said to me that, you once said to me that Joe Louis was a quiet revolutionary, what did you mean by that?
Joe Louis was a quiet revolutionary, because he took, he got involved mentally with all, whatever was happening that was discriminatory. Joe attempted to find some way or some reason to eliminate it, and he just, and he didn't make a noise about it, and it didn't appear in the newspapers. He would say to me, Don't write that up, now, and I would never write it up, what he was doing. You know, if he had to talk to the President about something, it was a terrific scoop to let go, but you had to let it go because that was the kind of person he was, so that's why I always figured I called him and thought of him as a quiet revolutionary.
Well, what things would he do as a quiet revolutionary?
Well, he would, he would never, for instance, I know he would never live in a hotel that, he was invited to the biggest hotels, of course, but if the next day a black American could not go to that hotel and get a room, Joe Louis would not accept it, you see. We stayed in hotels, black-owned hotels, there were a number of black-owned hotels in those days, in Chicago and St. Louis, and they were not as fancy, but they were nice hotels, and that's where we all stayed.
You once told me, you once told me what Joe's idea of being rich is, what was Joe's idea of being rich?
Joe's idea of being rich was, well, it was really sort of a strange one. He belie-, he never, he said, in order to be a really rich person, he says, I want to be able, so all I have to do is get on the train- 'cause it was a train in those days, we didn't travel on the airplanes that much- I want to get on the plane and not pack a bag, 'cause, where my clothes would be, wherever I am at, going. If we were going to California, he wanted to have enough clothes in California so he could just go change his clothes. Chicago, Florida, wherever he was going, he never liked packing a bag, and his idea of being rich was never having to pack a bag, but always have your clothes waiting for you when you got where you were going.
Can we cut for a second?
Yes, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ]
Great, that's funny.
Mark it, please. Take seven.
OK, so tell me about this business about Joe being a symbol against, you know, against the Nazis. This is before the War, but things were building up and he fought Schmeling, and Schmeling was the German, was Hitler's man. Tell me about that.
Are you ready for that?
Well, it's, I don't, I don't know, I can honestly say that I know that Joe, that's the way Joe felt. I'm not, I know that's the way the media felt, the media was exposing this kind of feeling, but I really never discussed it with him...
But that's what I want to talk about, the media, not Joe this time, how was the media, this second Schmeling fight, this propaganda, what kind of hype were they putting out for this fight?
Oh, it was the greatest, this great American had won for America, and, you know, hooray, hooray, hooray. But, of course, the media was always kind to Joe Louis, there was something, there was just something about this man that you couldn't help but like him. You know, he wasn't a guy you could have all them other kind of funny feelings about, you see, and as a result he never got into any real problems, but, as I said, he would use that, he would use them friends who thought he was a great guy to make 'em change certain things that were bad, because when he went into the service, that's after all, what, your question, of course, but when he went into the service [laughs], we went to the camp in a limousine, and got out-
OK, I'm sorry, we have little film left and we can't talk about the service—
[laughs] Sorry about that.
So, I know you want to, but we can't talk about that. But you know, I want to talk about John Roxborough again, and the kind of situation he set up to make it so that Joe Louis could become champion. What, what, this black management team, I'm still curious about that, what kind of guy was John Roxborough, and what did they do to make Joe's career?
Well, I, they got him around the right people, I believe—
Who's they? You gotta, you gotta tell me the names, 'cause I don't—
The owner of Madison Square, the guy, the promoter for Madison Square Garden, Gardens, isn't it? Time has sort of knocked him out of my—
Mike Jacobs. Mike Jacobs was real, you know, nice kind of person, Joe Louis loved him, and I don't know how much problem he had with his, with his management, but he would give Joe anything Joe wanted. But his management team was perhaps one of the greatest in America, whether it was white or black. They, they, they knew exactly what to do, they, they would, and they kept people away from Joe, they would have kept me away from Joe, but Joe rescinded that, only because, I think I told you the story about this friend of mine with the hat store. So, I figured it was a good way for this friend of mine to get his picture in the paper by giving Joe Louis a hat, so he gave me the hat to give to Joe Louis. When I go to deliver it to him, Joe was here then on a vaudeville sort of a run at the Harlem Opera House, and when I went there to give him the hat, and I told the man that sold 'em that I'd like to see Joe Louis, he said, Can't see Joe, But I'm a newspaper guy. Not right now, John and them said no—
—and then finally I said, Well, I got a present for him. So Joe heard that, and Joe says, Well, let him in, says, He's the only person in New York that wanted to give me something for nothing. [laughs] And I think that's how we became friends.
OK, great, you got that?
No, we ran out of film.
OK. All right, so, that's a cut, that's a wrap, thank you.