Emelda Custis didn't quite understand the breadth and impact of her great-grandfather's accomplishments until 2012, when a book was published that helped her find the proper context.
The book was "The Longest Fight: In the Ring with Joe Gans, Boxing's First African American Champion," by William Gildea, which detailed Gans' 42-round victory against Oscar "Battling" Nelson in Goldfield, Nev., in 1906. Gildea also more broadly examined the impact of Gans, a Baltimore native and the first African American boxing champion. Gans held the lightweight title from 1902-1908. Gans, nicknamed the "Old Master," is Custis' father's grandfather.
Custis, 71, isn't the only one in her family excited to learn about Gans' life and legacy 100-plus years after Gans' death (1910). Custis' 11-year-old grandson, Christian, brought Gildea's book into show-and-tell at school and offered a report on the book. Custis recalled beaming with pride when she heard about it.
"I just can't even wrap my mind around it," Custis said, "because that's what he chose to have for show-and-tell because he feels the pride and the honor and the humility."
On Nov. 23, two days before Gans' 145th birthday, boxing fans and others in the Baltimore area will have the opportunity to learn about Gans at volunteer-run Corner Team Boxing and Fitness Club, located at 1101 E. 25th Street in Baltimore. The Second Annual "Old Master" Celebration: Joe Gans Memorial Fight Night will take place from 4-9 p.m.
The gym hosted its first celebration last fall before it officially opened in January, and those who attended learned about Gans through an educational presentation. Attendees showed what they're fighting for in life through artwork that now hangs at the gym. Custis and other Gans descendants were there, too.
"The reason why we wanted to celebrate him last year was just because he was an unsung hero and someone that our gym and our program looks up to as a role model for our boxing community and who we are," said Sara Artes, who is on the board of directors for Corner Team, Inc.
This year, the celebration figures to be bigger and better. The event will include up to 20 fights featuring up-and-coming Baltimore boxers. Corner Team held an exhibition in July that drew 250 people, and Artes is expecting at least that many to be at the celebration.
Marvin McDowell, the president and founder of UMAR Boxing and Youth Development Center in West Baltimore, was at the first celebration and will be bringing some of his young boxers to fight this time around. McDowell said boxing teaches young people lessons that are beneficial outside of the ring.
"If they carry those same characteristics that they have in boxing ... in life, they've got an awesome person -- the discipline, the structure, all these components we need to be a productive person in society, you can get it from boxing," McDowell said.
Tickets to the event can be purchased for $20 at cornerteam.org or for $25 at the door. Proceeds benefit Corner Team; its new East Baltimore facility is open six days a week. Artes said the gym has seen an uptick in youth participation in recent months; 15-20 kids are in regularly on Saturdays for under-13 programming.
"We've just been pulling together to build this gym and to build an opportunity for [our neighborhood]," Artes said. "We're more than a boxing program. We're a program that uses boxing as a tool to engage around academic success, lifelong learning, mind-body wellness and civic leadership."
Photo Credits: Courtesy of the National Police Gazette and Kevin Grace
To that end, there's no one better to celebrate than Gans. In addition to being a groundbreaking world champion fighter, Gans opened the Goldfield Hotel on East Lexington and Colvin Streets in 1907. Named after Gans' 42-round fight in Nevada, the Goldfield was knocked down in 1960 and is now the site of a U.S. Postal Office. Gans' hotel and club were desegregated.
Gans was born in Baltimore in 1874. Gans' foster mother's home was on Argyle Ave. in West Baltimore, according to Friends of Joe Gans director Kevin Grace. Gans shucked oysters growing up, which built up the strength of his forearms, and began boxing around the age of 16, per Grace. Gans died at the age of 35 due to tuberculosis.
The Nov. 23 celebration will include a letter-writing campaign to encourage the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee to consider a stamp for Gans, according to Artes. Grace has long pursued a commemorative postage stamp for Gans as well as a statue in Baltimore.
"The reason for the postage stamp is you educate people," Grace said. "... It's a story. You can't deny that. Man, this is a story. It's a story of somebody persevering, helping their community and overcoming their situation."
For now, people like Artes, Grace, Custis and, of course, Custis' grandson, Christian, are the ones spreading the word about the legend of Joe Gans.
"I have two older sisters, I have a younger brother. It's amazing that we've been able to experience this in our lifetime for someone who, of course, lived and passed away so long ago," Custis said. "But the stories are still being told. The honor is still being bestowed."
Corner Team, Inc. is a nonprofit organization. Donate at cornerteam.org.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Corner Team, Inc., the National Police Gazette and Kevin Grace
Issue 259: November 2019
Originally published Nov. 15, 2019