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From Red Clay to Black Bottom
Sugar Ray Robinson on the page is almost as elusive as he was in the ring. In the opening chapters of the autobiography that he completed with the assistance of New York Times sportswriter Dave Anderson, Sugar states that he was born May 3, 1921, in Detroit's Black Bottom. While the date of his birth is accurate (though it is listed as 1920 in Ring magazine, boxing's bible), the location he gives is contradicted by a birth certificate that cites Ailey, Georgia, as his place of birth. Whoever filled out the certificate—and it could have been Sugar's father, Walker Smith, Sr.—was only barely literate, since colored was misspelled "colerd." He was named Walker Smith. His mother's name appears to be Lelar, though in his book Sugar refers to her as Leila; her maiden name was Hurst. According to the certificate, Walker, Sr., is twenty-eight and a farmer and Lelar is twenty-three and a domestic. Gene Schoor, who wrote a biography of Sugar Ray Robinson in 1951, notes that Mrs. Smith was born August 25, 1900, which would have made her twenty-one at the time of Sugar's birth, and was one of sixteen children.Walker, Jr.,was the couple's third child. And "Junior" would be the name Sugar would answer to as a boy.
In his autobiography, Sugar writes that his parents were from Dublin, Georgia, which is about 130 miles northwest of Savannah. Both of his older sisters, Marie and Evelyn, were born on a farm not too far from Dublin. In 1980, Walker Smith's funeral announcement states that he arrived in Detroit in 1916; Schoor reported 1917. If either is true, then he must havegone back and forth for the children to be born in the South, or he came alone and his wife came later. This region of Georgia at that time, mainly within Montgomery County, was well-known for three things: cotton, the Ku Klux Klan, and lynching. During thepostWorld War I years, particularly 1919, the year Evelyn was born, at least ten black soldiers were lynched, half of them in Georgia. According to author Donald L. Grant, "Many of the demobilized black veterans continued to wear their uniforms, sometimes because they had no other clothes and sometimes because they were proud of their service. Many whites reacted savagely to this practice." Countless numbers of black soldiers who had gone abroad to make the world "safe for democracy" returned home with a newfound spirit of freedom, only to be brutally reminded by the Klan and other white residents that nothing had changed. And to drive this point home, the Klan torched several black churches and lodges, burning them to the ground.
With the cotton infested with boll weevils and the membership of the Klan increasing with each lynching, black farmers had few alternatives but to seek better opportunities elsewhere. Sugar's aunt and her husband were among the migrants who moved north to Detroit looking for a better life. They found a place to live and settled in an area known as Black Bottom. This sector on the city's east side was an outgrowth of the restrictive covenant that confined the movement of African Americans. It contained the most dilapidated houses and received the least services. Even so, it was an improvement over where its residents had lived before. Sugar's aunt and uncle notified Walker, who followed them, gaining employment almost immediately as a ditch digger. "Pop was a wiry little guy," Sugar recalled in his autobiography, "five foot seven and a hundred and fifty pounds, with a dazzling smile that lit up his dark brown face.And he was strong."Much of Walker's strength—and certainly his fatigue—came from wielding a shovel, digging out cellar shells for buildings. Resourceful and hardworking, he was soon behind the wheel of a shiny new black Ford Model T, tooling about town and "styling," like sashaying while driving, just as his son would do years later in flashier automobiles: Cadillacs and Lincolns.
His father's tastes for luxury notwithstanding, he managed to purchase train tickets for his wife and children to join him in Detroit. This act alone distinguished him from so many fathers who, once out of the grip of American apartheid, never looked back or gave a thought to those they left behind. Sugar wrote that he made the trip to Detroit in his mother's womb, coming into the world a few weeks after their arrival. If they left Georgia shortly after he was born, that might account for his recollection that he was born in Detroit, not Ailey, Georgia. Or given Sugar's penchant for invention, this was just another example of his remaking himself, his way of recalling his life the way he wanted it to be, not as it was. Blurring dates, events, even people came as easily, and was probably as necessary, to him as sidestepping a blow or counterpunching opponents with a wicked left hook.
The Smiths' home on Canfield, just north of Black Bottom, and near Paradise Valley, was typical of the small homes in the area. It was a two-story yellow brick house, neat but not pretentious. The neighborhood's citizens, many of them recent migrants from Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, had begun coming to the city in droves since 1914, shortly after Henry Ford announced the possibility of earning five dollars a day in his automobile plants. The population increased astronomically, from 5,000 to 120,000, between 1910 and 1930. There were jobs for them in the factories, but mainly they were the hardest, most dangerous, lowest-paying, and most unskilled ones. But the majority of these new arrivals were not deterred by the onerous work, since they were used to spending long days under a blazing sun picking and chopping cotton. . .Pound for Pound. Copyright © by Herb Boyd. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.