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January 21, 2014 | 03:04 PMMonday was a quiet day in Lake Geneva.
The mail wasn’t delivered and government offices were closed.
For most of us, those were the most tangible signs that it was Martin Luther King Day.
With the exception of Lake Ivanhoe, 10 minutes to our east, there isn’t much to tie the Lake Geneva area to African-American history.
Sadly, though, Lake Geneva is responsible for two historical footnotes that paint a less than positive picture of our mostly white community.
One of course, is Lake Ivanhoe, a community created, in part, according to the Racine Journal Times, as a recreational area for blacks in an era when Lake Geneva was less than welcoming.
The other claim to historical notoriety, is the story about how famed African-American boxer Joe Louis was turned away from the city.
That story dates back to the summer of 1937.
On April 29 of that year the Lake Geneva Regional News proudly announced that “Joe Louis Will Begin Training Here On May 1.”
The subhead read: “Camp Site Selection Given Final Confirmation.”
The story went on to say that Louis’ manager was coming to town that very day to finalize plans.
Inside there was a photo captioned: “Brown Bomber Coming Here.”
The training headquarters for what would be Louis’ first championship fight were to be established at the city softball field. An arena and showers were to be built.
The expectation was that there would be thousands of spectators and that concession sales would help defray costs.
“Every detail connected with the undertaking of such a stupendous proposition as bringing the training camp to Lake Geneva has been thoroughly gone into … and overwhelmingly endorsed,” the story said, without attributing such glowing optimism to anyone in particular.
“Practically every avenue of possible complication has been discussed,” the story said.
Apparently, “practically” was the operative word.
In the next edition of the paper, dated May 6, a headline read: “Louis Camp Plans Still Unconfirmed.”
That story seemed to blame the confusion on Louis. “…whether or not the agreement with Lake Geneva is to be honored, is still in doubt,” the story said.
One week later, on May 13, the paper reported briefly on a recent chamber of commerce meeting. “Following the regular business meeting, the details concerning why the Joe Louis camp was not established in Lake Geneva were discussed.”
But, those “details” weren’t revealed in that issue. Or the next. Or any other issue we could find.
The only other mention in the Regional News was in an inside page of that May 13 issue stating that the camp would be in Kenosha instead of Lake Geneva.
But, according to a historical feature in the Kenosha News from 2012, written by reporter Diane Giles, the issues were apparently too uncomfortable for the local paper to cover.
“The mayor of Lake Geneva and officials with the chamber of commerce wanted Louis to train in their city,” Giles wrote. “The merchants had voted 109-5 to invite Louis there. They began soliciting funds with a goal of $5,000 to offer Louis in exchange for establishing a training camp there.”
But not everyone was happy.
“A homeowners’ group, the Lake Geneva Protective Association, sent a letter to a Chicago newspaper stating that Lake Geneva was an exclusive resort, not open to the public,” Giles wrote.
She explained that it was “during a time when most of western Kenosha County had locked out African Americans from property ownership through covenants with homeowner groups.”
“The association threatened to refuse to patronize merchants who contributed to the fund,” Giles wrote. “That got the merchants running scared, and they dropped their campaign to bring Louis there.”
A story in a Pittsburgh paper expanded on the issue.
Calling Louis “the colored challenger,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said that the local challenge to Louis came from George Hotten, secretary of the Lake Geneva Home Owners’ Protective Association.
“Merchants were informed members of the association would refuse to patronize them if they contributed to the fund,” the story said.
As a result, the camp for the man who would become one of the greatest boxing champions ever was not located in Lake Geneva.
Instead, it opened in Kenosha that May 11. More than 20,000 spectators paid 55 cents to $1.10 each to watch Louis train. Louis won that championship fight and held onto the crown for another 11 years, defending the title a record 25 times.
So, as we celebrate a holiday created to recognize Martin Luther King’s efforts toward racial harmony, we dare not forget a day that should live in infamy for our fair city.
The day when Lake Geneva put Joe Louis down for the count.