Part of Joe Louis' appeal lay in his rags to riches story. The seventh of eight children born to Alabama tenant farmers Munroe and Lillie Barrow, Joe lost his father early on. Two years after Joe's birth, Munroe Barrow was confined to the Searcy State Hospital for the Colored Insane, and Lillie was soon informed that he had died. In fact, Munroe lived on for another twenty years, an invisible man oblivious to his son's growing reputation. Believing herself a widow, Lillie Barrow soon married Pat Brooks, a widower with five children of his own. For a while Joe and the other children helped their parents work the cotton fields, but in 1926 the Brooks/Barrow family joined the growing swell of black migration northward.
The family resettled in Detroit, where twelve-year-old Joe found himself woefully unprepared for school. To his embarrassment, he was placed in classes with younger, smaller children, and eventually the school system shunted him off to the Bronson Vocational School. Fortunately for him, he discovered a vocation that would take him far
beyond the precincts of the Detroit school system. When the Depression threw his stepfather out of work, Joe began doing odd jobs around town and hanging around with a rough crowd. To keep him off the streets, his mother scraped together 50 cents a week for violin lessons, but Joe used the money to join the Brewster Recreation Center, where he took up boxing.
Fearing that his mother would discover where the "violin money" was going, Joe dropped the Barrow from his name and began boxing neighborhood kids as Joe Louis. While he showed great promise, an exhausting, full-time job pushing truck bodies at an auto-body plant left him little time or energy for training. In late 1932, he entered his first amateur match against Johnny Miller, a member of that year's Olympic boxing team. Louis' lack of training showed, and Miller knocked him down seven times in the first two rounds. Mortified, Joe Louis gave up boxing altogether, taking his stepfather's advice to concentrate on his job instead. Interestingly, it was his mother who encouraged him to get back into the ring, seeing in boxing a chance for him to make something of himself doing what he enjoyed.