Header Graphic
Articles > Remembering a champion: Columbus honors boxing legend and native son with Henry Armstrong Day

27 Sep 2008

By Jan Swoope



Rufus Ward, left, and Glenn Lautzenhiser hold a movie poster for “Keep Punching,” starring Armstrong. The 1939 movie will be screened Oct. 13 at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library. (Photo:T.Imes)

Photo Gallery

Henry Armstrong’s life story is an American tale of humble beginnings, fame, harsh times and redemption.

And, it may be one of Columbus’ best-kept secrets that the man The Associated Press ranked as the third greatest boxer of the 20th century, behind only Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali, was born right here, in 1912.

The relentless puncher who, as a young man, shined shoes and worked on the railroad to help his parents and 14 brothers and sisters survive the Great Depression became the only boxer in history to hold world championships in three divisions simultaneously — featherweight, lightweight and welterweight — and lived the first four years of his life in an “unpainted log and shingle house” in a cotton field near Nash Road.

“The most fascinating thing to me is how significant Henry Armstrong is in American sports, and yet practically no one in Columbus knows who he is,” said local historian Rufus Ward, one of the consortium of volunteers spearheading the commemoration.

That local obscurity will lift Oct. 13 when sponsor organizations collaborate to honor the native son with Henry Armstrong Day.

“He was born in a log cabin into a sharecropper family; his mother was an Iroquois Indian named ‘America,’ and he went on to fight in front of more than 23,000 people, the largest crowd Madison Square Garden had ever seen at the time. It’s phenomenal,” Ward continued, surrounded by Armstrong memorabilia on his desk at the Billups Garth Archives in the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library.

“He lost much of what he’d gained, had some kind of life-changing experience and then devoted his life to helping young people. It’s just such a classic American story.”

“My family and I are truly grateful to everyone who is participating in the Henry Armstrong Day celebration in Columbus,” said Armstrong’s grandson, Edward Scott, who heads the Henry Armstrong Foundation in Los Angeles. “My grandfather would have been very humbled by this worthy event. He was an inspiration to many people, even to this day. He has a great story that needs to be told.”

The seed of an idea

Glenn Lautzenhiser clearly remembers the genesis of the idea to recognize Armstrong locally.

“I’d gone to pick up sports publicist Joe Goldstein at the airport for the Red Barber event, and before we’d even gotten back to town, he’d said, ‘Glenn, it’s real nice what the town is doing for Red Barber, but next, you really ought to think of doing something for Henry Armstrong.’”

As Lautzenhiser and Brenda Caradine mulled over ideas months later, the concept took hold. With a dedicated committee and support from primary sponsors including the Billups-Garth Foundation, the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau, Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, Hazard Lecture Series, Henry Armstrong Foundation, Katherine Kerby of Kerby Law, and 01 Productions, plans rapidly expanded.

Henry Armstrong Day events

On Oct. 13, a state historic marker will be unveiled at 1:30 p.m. at the corner of Wilkins-Wise Road and Waverly Road, near the area where Armstrong lived as a child. At 2:30 p.m., “Keep Punching,” one of three Hollywood movies the boxer appeared in, will be screened at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library. That evening, the Hazard Lecture Series presents renowned AP sports analyst Ed Schuyler at 7 p.m. at Heritage Academy.

Before his retirement in 2002, Schuyler covered the biggest names in modern boxing — Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Lennox Lewis, Marvin Hagler and many more.

“In all, I covered more than 300 world championship fights and about 2,250 bouts in seven Olympics,” Schuyler said of his tenure at ringside.

“Mr. Schuyler certainly complements the Henry Armstrong observance with his knowledge of boxing history,” said George Hazard who, along with his family, initiated the lecture series many years ago. “I know there are many people who will want to talk to him about the more modern era of the sport.”

To add to the excitement surrounding the Armstrong celebration, a specially-organized Friday Night Fights Oct. 10 at Trotter Convention Center will draw special guests, including Olympic bronze medalist Deontay Wilder — the only American boxer to medal in Beijing. Coordinator Oliver Miller shared that seven bouts are already confirmed and more are in planning.

Local family

Armstrong moved with his parents and siblings to St. Louis at the age of 4, but Columbus is still home to about 25 relatives.

“We’re all so excited about this honor,” enthused Laurettia Tuggle Clark, the champ’s great-great-niece. Clark teaches first grade at Joe Cook Fine Arts Magnet School.

“When I was little, living in St. Louis, we’d visit his family’s house, but I was too young to be really aware of him or that he was a boxer. My mother especially is ecstatic. At our Labor Day family reunion, we all talked about Henry Armstrong Day. It’s actually gotten us looking up our genealogy more and finding other family members, so we’re grateful from that standpoint, too.”

A remarkable road

Born Henry Jackson, the Lowndes County native would later adopt the professional name of Henry Armstrong and, gifted with a looping right and slashing style, go on to score 100 knockouts in the ring. His official record was 152 victories in 181 fights.

The relentless puncher stood only 5 feet 5 1/2 inches tall but was among the first three men active in the ring after 1919 to be elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame, in 1954. The others were Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis.

His feat of holding three championship titles simultaneously can never be equaled; the holding of multiple titles has been barred since the 1940s.

After losing his final title on Oct. 4, 1940, in 15 rounds to Fritzie Zivic, Armstrong fought for four more years, but never again for a championship.

Struggles would await him after retirement from the ring, but he found his calling — and fulfilled a prophecy made almost at birth by his mother — in the ministry. He spent most of the rest of his life, until his death from heart failure in 1988, trying to reach young people in need.

“He was more than a boxer, he was a family man, ordained Baptist minister and very big on education and working with the youth through his foundation, The Henry Armstrong Youth Foundation,” said Scott of his grandfather.

“The Henry Armstrong Foundation is currently carrying on his mission by offering athletic and medical scholarships to financially needy students for application, books and tuition fees. Our main goal is to acquire a youth center in Los Angeles to help at-risk youth get the help and training needed to be successful adults.”

Statistical anomaly

Lautzenhiser is struck by facts that defy probability. “I’m interested in statistics,” he said. “Keep in mind that Columbus was much smaller in the early 1900s than it is now and just think — at one time we had Red Barber, arguably one of, if not the, greatest sports announcers of all time; Tennessee Williams, arguably one of the best writers of all time; and Henry Armstrong, arguably one of the greatest boxers of all time ... all living and growing up as children in Columbus at the same time. It’s off the charts.”

With an official proclamation recognizing Henry Armstrong Day, the city joins with organizers, sponsors and the community to recognize another native Columbian who rose to worldwide acclaim.

The public is encouraged to join in the celebration. There is no cost to attend the marker unveiling, the movie screening or the Hazard Lecture Series. Tickets for Friday Night Lights are $25, available at Miller’s Tae-Kwon-Do at 1800 College St.

For more information about Henry Armstrong Day, contact the CVB at 662-329-1191. For more information about Friday Night Fights, contact Oliver Miller at 662-364-3443.