One August day, some years ago, I made my intermittent pilgrimage to Arlington National Cemetery. I always manage to choose the hottest day of the season. The heat and the whining of the annual cicadas have become emblematic since my first visit as a ten-year-old walking behind the horse-drawn caisson carrying my step-grandfather to his gravesite.
I began to know the place by heart: from the asynchronous Greek- Revival pillars of the Amphitheatre to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and its revered precision of the Changing of the Guard, Kennedy’s Eternal Flame, and Arlington House, once Robert E. Lee and the Custis family residence. During one visit, I discovered that Custis Walk took me to the gravesites of the US Colored Troops, an adjacency of wry and poetic justice.
Only recently, I have come to learn that several sections of the cemetery I traversed had been a “Freedman’s Village” of 50 residences, with a community kitchen, school, and hospital surrounding a pond. There, freed slaves began their lives free from bondage. The village continued to exist for almost 30 years. More than 28,000 residents of Freedman’s Village are buried in Section 27 of the cemetery.
It was one of those days, walking from the Changing of the Guard toward the cemetery’s entrance, that I had an odd encounter.
Pausing to decide on my route—the cemetery is a maze of hilly paths and narrow roads—I noticed a man holding a sheet of paper and staring at me with that expression only the lost can project. I knew he was about to ask me for help as he approached. He was tall, with close-cropped silver hair and wearing a suit, the tie long gone. He held out the sheet of paper and uttered “Brown Bomber” as a question drenched in a heavy German accent.
He was holding a map, a sort of tourist guide for Arlington visitors, and he wanted to see Joe Louis’ memorial. I had no idea Joe Louis, the illustrious boxer, was interred at Arlington.
We found the famous boxer’s memorial stone in minutes. My acquaintance stood before the monument, its bas-relief of the fighter eternally posed in a boxer’s stance. I hung back
listening to the cicadas in the stifling furnace of the afternoon. He turned and nodded his head, as if to thank me.
He said he was a young boy in Prussia when he listened to the famous 2-minute fight at Yankee Stadium between Louis and Max Schmeling on the radio. Schmeling, having beaten Louis in a previous fight and heralded by the Reich’s propagandists as the Nazi’s golden boy, was decimated in the first round of the rematch and sent to the hospital for ten days with a broken vertebrae. A Black man had beaten him.
As we walked down the hill toward the entrance, he told me that he was Trappist monk in Germany and promised himself a trip to honor Joe Louis and to thank him for a small sense of triumph over adversity, homage to the man who gave so many a shred of hope in a Europe quickly being ravaged by Hitler’s quest to crush Europe. “That fight was what we needed at the time,” he said.
Over the years, I thought about that moment at Arlington and have come to learn of another dimension of the fight heard by 70 million people worldwide. Louis and Schmeling were complicated products of their time with cultural, political, and racial implications. Schmeling walked a tightrope: he had tea with Hitler and gave the Nazi salute after one fight, had a Jewish manager, but he was not a Nazi, nor was he a racist. He even personally saved two Jewish children by hiding them at his residence. Louis, revered by Blacks during an America in the thrall of Jim Crow racism where even the Northern press traded in racist headlines, had become the hope of an America as a land of opportunity. Both were caught in a drama bigger than boxing. They were avatars of contradicting ideologies.
After all this and the “great rematch,” Schmeling and Louis became lifelong friends, the German even assisting the “Champ” financially until his death in 1981.
And I thought about the little boy in Prussia glued to the radio, hoping for a hint that at least for a moment the world could be right.
As I left, I looked back up at the Arlington hills where 400,000 souls lay buried: Union, Confederate, Black, white and brown, men and women, families of the fallen. The sacrifices, the loss.
I was standing next to a small marker inscribed with “Infant Civilian.” Where it all begins.