13 Jun 2022


Lost Capitol Hill: Fighting Joe Louis

Joe Louis

When last we looked at Donald “Reds” Berry, he was ––at the tender age of 15–– becoming a boxer. In the course of 1930, he would fight at least a dozen bouts. The following year, he and Walter Kirkwood, a fellow D.C. boxer, hitchhiked across the country, putting on exhibitions as they went. While Berry fought under his own name, Kirkwood would change his name along the way, to make it look as if Berry was competing against a variety of opponents.

Berry’s most famous fight came in 1935, when on March 8, he took on Joe Louis at the Dreamland Auditorium in San Francisco. They were almost exactly the same age: Louis was born eight days after Berry. And yet, although Louis’ professional career had only begun the previous year, he had a 50-4 career as an amateur and he was riding a 15-bout winning streak since turning pro.

The Associated Press began its reportage:

Joe Louis, Detroit’s Negro heavyweight sensation, today held a knockout victory over Donald (Red) Barry [sic] of Washington, D.C., to his credit in his advance toward a hoped-for chance at Champion Max Baer. […] Barry’s downfall was certain from the time Louis landed his first blow until Referee Toby Irwin called a halt to the one-sided battle.

Detail of picture by Jim Beryman published in the Washington Evening Star illustrating an upcoming match between Bobby Tow and Donald Berry. (LOC)

While Berry would continue to fight through the end of that year, he never won another match. Even worse, all the damage done to him in his 10+ year career came back to haunt him. In 2000, William Boswell was interviewed by Nancy Metzger for what became the Overbeck Project. Boswell remembered Berry’s later days:

Reds later on lived with his sister across from the Marine Commandant’s house, in that block. He would have trouble walking across the street. His reflexes had gone so bad. To talk to him, he would keep you in stitches. He could tell you humorous story after humorous story, joke after joke. There was nothing wrong with his brain, but his muscular abilities were pretty bad[. …] It was so bad with Reds [that] the owner of Boyles, said, “Reds, please. I know there is nothing wrong with you, but I prefer that you not come in because people who don’t know you think we’re serving somebody who is already intoxicated.” It was that bad. He was a nice guy.

By 1940 when Berry had to register for the draft, he was living in Bradbury Heights, Maryland. He was living with his mother and receiving care from a doctor for ‘palsy.’ He was also listed as ‘unemployed,’ though it might have been more accurate to say that he was not engaged in any legal business; in 1944, he was hauled before a United States Commissioner on the charges of “counterfeiting ration coupons.” Berry and two others ––including a pool hall owner from 8th Street–– had been found with plates to make ration coupons, as well as a whole pile of counterfeit coupons. The newspapers seem to have lost interest in this case immediately afterward, no further indication of what happened to Berry or his co-indictees were forthcoming.

Reds’s mother died in 1953, but was buried not next to her husband, but in Cedar Hill cemetery in Maryland. Reds himself would live almost another 40 years, dying in 1991. His brief obituary in the Post gave only the barest information, with the only possible hint as to his cause of death being a request for donations to the American Parkinson’s Disease Center at Johns Hopkins University. There is no indication as to where he was buried.

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