Joe Louis Movie Premieres as Sister Freezes to Death

February 23, 2008 · Print This Article · Email This Post

Joe Louis' Only Surviving Sibling, Vunies High, Found Frozen to Death in Southfield, MichiganAs HBO television premieres the documentary Joe Louis: America’s Hero. . .Betrayed tonight as part of Black History Month, the legendary heavyweight boxing champion’s only surviving sibling, Vunies High, 92, was buried today after freezing to death this week on the lawn of a Southfield, Michigan retirement home. Ms. High, who had Alzheimer’s disease, was found in the snow at the Heatherwood retirement home on Civic Center Drive in Southfield at about 10:30 a.m. on Monday, wearing only pajamas and one slipper. She had been missing since about 8:00 p.m. the night before; her body was found about 100 feet from one of Heatherwood’s exits. It’s believed she may have been out all night without a coat, as subzero temperatures dropped to -12 degrees with an additional -5 wind chill factor.

The 162-bed nursing home refused to answer media questions as to why it took 14-1/2 hours to find one patient who was 100 feet from an exit door.

High, the first person in her family to graduate from college, was a counselor and teacher for 25 years in the Detroit Public Schools. A 1962 Time magazine article, “Good in the Ghetto,” mentioned her teaching at Detroit’s Central High School. Born in September 1915 in Alabama, High graduated in 1935 from the then predominantly white Cass Technical High in Detroit, after her sharecropper parents moved to Detroit hoping for jobs at booming automobile plants. High graduated cum laude from Howard University in Washington, D.C.; her famous boxing brother, also known as “The Brown Bomber,” paid her tuition.

Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit, MichiganMs. High’s son, Sidney High, 46, who is an environmental engineer, told The Detroit News that his mother “didn’t have to die. . .No one has really given me an explanation of what happened yet. I don’t know if she had proper supervision [at Heatherwood] or not. The only thing I’ve heard from them is that they will provide some help in removing her things.” Ms. High, who lived at Heatherwood for about four years, is also survived by two daughters, Lisa Wells and Egyriba High. Her son remembered her as “an educator [who] believed in giving your best and working hard for whatever you get in life.” Her funeral was held at 11 a.m. today at the Calvary Baptist Church at 1000 Robert Bradby Drive in Detroit, with burial in Detroit’s Elmwood Cemetery — fittingly, the first integrated cemetery in the Midwest.
Joe Louis Grave at Arlington National Cemetery
The HBO film features black celebrities including Maya Angelou, Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory, who reminisce about how proud Joe Louis made them feel as blacks, at a time when lynchings still occurred in the Deep South. Louis, one of the greatest prizefighters in history and perhaps the most famous athlete from Detroit, died of a heart attack, penniless and drug addicted, in Las Vegas in April 1981. He was a sergeant in the Army during World War II, but was buried at Arlington National Cemetery only after President Reagan ordered some bureaucratic regulations waived, and a funeral with full military honors. His friend Frank Sinatra, who had picked up the tab for many of Louis’ medical bills, paid for the relief on his tombstone.

Joe Louis and Max Schmeling Weigh In for Their 1938 Prize FightLouis, the world heavyweight champion from 1937-1949, retired undefeated after 25 title defenses. His best known fight was that against Max Schmeling in 1938, for the world heavyweight championship. Adolf Hitler wanted Schmeling to demonstrate Aryan supremacy by beating a black American. Instead, Louis knocked out Schmeling in the first round, before 80,000 fans at Yankee Stadium. Louis became a national hero and a worldwide symbol of black pride. During the war, Louis put on exhibition matches for Allied troops around the world, but would only box if blacks were allowed to attend.


Max Schmeling, German Prizefighter and Coca-Cola MillionaireThe post-war years were not kind to Louis. The national hero developed tax problems, hawking cigarettes and alcohol in commercials, performing a song-and-dance routine and then becoming a professional wrestler, all in attempts to pay his debts. Of wresting, he said: “it beats stealing.” At one point, Muhammad Ali even called Louis an “Uncle Tom.” Meanwhile, Schmeling got a Coca-Cola distributorship from the company, becoming a millionaire. He died in Germany in 2005 at age 99.


Read more black history, or learn more about Alzheimer’s disease.

Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP / Getty Images

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