Louisville, Kentucky is home of a legend.
By Renée S. Gordon
On January 17, 1942 Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was born to Odessa O’Grady and Cassius Clay Sr. He was their firstborn; 18 months later his brother Rudolph Clay was born. At that time, in a segregated city, no one dreamt that Clay Jr. was destined to have a lasting and incalculable impact on the United States and world as an American, athlete, Muslim and humanitarian.
The events surrounding this man, his career and his moral stance are most clearly understood by tracing his path in Louisville, Kentucky, where his life took root and thrived. A series of sites have been designated part of an official route and several are open for tours and several murals of Ali adorn the city. In addition, special exhibitions and events are held throughout the city on a continuous basis.
Ali was born in Louisville General Hospital, now part of the University of Louisville Medical Center. His father was descended from an enslaved family on the Clay plantation. His mother was the granddaughter of an Irishman who immigrated to America in 1877 and married an ex-slave. The first house in which he lived was torn down but his early years are presented through the lens of his childhood home.
The Clay family moved to the house at 3302 Grand Avenue when he was five and he lived there until he was 18 years old. The Ali Childhood Home in the Parkland area of the city is 90 percent original and has been restored to its original pink exterior. The house and adjacent visitors’ center opened for tours on May 28, 2016.
All tours are guided and the premiere guide is Sonny Fishback, a childhood friend and classmate of Ali’s. He adds personal reminiscences and insight into the lives of the family members during tours; you can glean additional insights from interpretive panels, photographs and an orientation film.
Both Clay Sr. and Rudolph, now Rahman Ali, were painters and their works are hung throughout the house. Rahman is a frequent visitor to the home and can often be found signing autographs and answering questions.
Ali’s red bike was stolen outside the Columbia Center when he was 12. Enraged, he reported it to a white police officer, Joe Martin, adding that he wanted to “whup” the thief. After convincing Ali that he first needed to learn to fight he offered to add him to a group of youths to whom he was giving boxing lessons in the Columbia Gym. The gym is now part of Spalding University and a replica of Ali’s bike is located over the main entrance to designate both where his bike was stolen and his first training site. He worked with Joe for five years along with an African American coach named Fred Stoner. Ali’s talent was immediately apparent and he was showcased on “Tomorrow’s Champions,” a local television program.
Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, 1057 S. 28th Street, is the site of the three Clay Family Murals painted by Clay Sr. and Rahman Clay.
During his high school years Ali spent all of his waking hours training for and mapping out his boxing career. Chickasaw Park, founded in 1922 for African Americans, was one of his favorite training runs. He did not ride the school bus but instead raced it to Central High School where he graduated in 1960.
On October 29, 1960 Cassius Clay burst onto the professional boxing scene. The six-round bout was held at Freedom Hall, 937 Phillips Lane, and ended with a win against Tunney Hunsaker. Freedom Hall is now part of the Kentucky Exposition Center. Ali would go on to win gold at the Rome Olympics in 1960. It is believed that he tossed his Olympic medal from Louisville’s Second Street Bridge after being denied service in a restaurant.
If you only have time for only a single site visit, tour the six-level Muhammad Ali Center. It opened in 2005 to serve as a “global gathering place” dedicated to presenting the life and legacy of Muhammad Ali. Self-guided tours begin with a 15-minute multimedia orientation film shown on five screens. “If You Can Dream” is built around Rudyard Kipling’s, “If”, a poem Ali carried in his wallet.
Ali, like other family members, was a painter. A gallery adjacent to the theater highlights his artwork. This gallery is a visual diary of his experiences and worldview both inside and outside the ring.
The center presents a chronological timeline of his life, career in the ring, and areas dedicated to his six core values: confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality. “The Greatest,” a short film, is projected on the regulation-size boxing ring used in the autobiographical movie. You can also watch on-demand films of 15 of his fights. Several areas are devoted to the story of Ali’s conversion to Islam and subsequent three-year court battle over conscientious objector status. The tour continues with his humanitarian efforts, international outreach and stance as a citizen of the world. Nineteen languages are represented in the museum’s interactive and multisensory displays.
The Clay family was artistic and it is fitting that Louisville should honor Muhammad Ali with a significant number of art installations. On two exterior sides of the Muhammad Ali Center Ali is portrayed. One side shows him in a series of boxing poses and on the other in portrait. The installation is best viewed from I-64.
Louisville’s Hometown Hero program consists of a series of noted Louisvillians pictured on huge banners. The Ali banner is suspended on the side of the Electric & Gas Company.
The list of Ali’s accomplishments, awards and honors is long and is not confined to sports. In 2005 he was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom and President Bush stated, “All who receive the Medal of Freedom can know that they have a special place in the life of our country and have earned the respect and affection of the American people.”
At the age of 74 Ali died in 2016 of Parkinson’s disease. His funeral, attended by thousands of mourners, was held in Louisville. He is interred in the 265-acre Cave Hill National Cemetery and Arboretum. A memorial is being planned but the gravesite is on view. Follow signs to the office and then the green line to the grave. The cemetery is open daily.
A unique aspect of a Muhammad Ali Legacy trip to Louisville is the ability to stay in the Muhammad Ali Suite in the historic Brown Hotel at 335 West Broadway. The “Sportsman of the Century” dedicated the suite in 2001 and a stay is like entering his world.
The two-bedroom suite is predominantly black, green and gold and embellished with Ali artifacts, memorabilia and iconic photographs.
“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” — Muhammad Ali
Ali’s legacy of service continues with the Ali75 initiative. People can register to donate 75 hours of service by texting Ali to 75475.
– Photos by Renée S. Gordon
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