One day in mid-June 1934, two black men walked into Trafton's Gym on Randolph Street in Chicago. Jack Blackburn, a trainer at the gym, recognized one of them as Julian Black, proprietor of a South Side speakeasy. Black introduced his balding friend with the polite mustache as John Roxborough. They had found a heavyweight prospect in Detroit, Black said, and they wanted Blackburn to train him. The fighter's name was Joe Louis.
"Bring around this white boy, and I'll look him over," the trainer said. Roxborough told Blackburn that Louis was a Negro. "I won't have no truck with a colored boy," Blackburn replied. "Colored boys ain't got much chance fighting nowadays—unless they just happen to be world-beaters." Roxborough said that a world-beater was exactly what they had. Blackburn had been around too long to believe this, but he did need work. Roxborough and Black told him they would bring in their fighter the next day.
Blackburn watched them go with amusement. He knew that Julian Black was in on the South Side rackets. Roxborough, the numbers boss in Detroit's black section, smelled of money, too. Such successful men should have known better than to back a black fighter. Jack Blackburn, black himself, certainly did. He had been one of the truly great lightweights at the turn of the century, when most professional athletes—including all boxers—were regarded as little better than hoodlums. Blackburn fit the part perfectly. He could be an angry, violent drunk, and he had fatally stabbed a man in a bar in 1909 and served time for it. Later he began training fighters and had handled two world champions, both white. He was now stuck with a stable of undistinguished whites.
When Black and Roxborough brought Joe Louis into the gym, Blackburn quickly saw that he was far from a world-beater. He had just turned 20. He stood over 6 feet but weighed only 175 pounds. He had the gangling build and awkward movements of a boy who had not fully matured. In the ring he relied almost solely on his strength. His footwork was slow, and his only real defense was a good offense.
Blackburn asked how much Black and Roxborough would pay him to take on Louis, and they said $35 a week. The trainer laughed. "This will be the best job I ever had," he said. "I got to tell you, you'll never make a success of this kid, but I need the work. He ain't going to make no money worth shaking your finger at. Remember, he's a colored boy."
At first, Blackburn did not let Louis into the ring. He had him hit the heavy punching bag for hours. He stressed balance. He told Louis to plant his feet so that every punch carried the full force of his body. Blackburn was worried because the shy young man seemed to possess none of the killer instinct so necessary in the ring. On the other hand, Louis did learn quickly, and he was very strong.
Blackburn planned to teach Louis a lot more than boxing. One day he said, "You know, boy, the heavyweight division for a Negro is hardly likely. The white man ain't too keen on it. If you ain't gonna be another Jack Johnson, you got some hope. The white man hasn't forgotten that fool nigger with his white women."
Blackburn warned Louis of another problem common to black fighters: At some point, he would be asked—or told—to throw a fight. "I've done a lot of things I haven't been proud of," Blackburn said, "but I never threw a fight, and you won't either 'cause I'll know, and then it's gonna be you and me."
Black and Roxborough also took a serious interest in the non-boxing education of Louis. Despite his ties with the rackets, Roxborough was a cultured man, the son of a doctor. One day he said, "To be a champion you've got to be a gentleman first. Your toughest fight might not be in the ring but out in public. You never, never say anything bad about an opponent. Before a fight you say how great he is, after a fight you say how great he was. And for God's sake, after you beat a white opponent, don't smile."
"That's what Jack Johnson did," Black interjected.