Why you should care
When boxer Joe Louis signed a contract to promote Black tourism to Cuba, the sports hero was KO’d by the backlash.
The celebrations began with the noontime closing of businesses and the decoration of city streets, and just kept rolling from there to outdoor parties nationwide. Elated Cubans stayed up all night, drinking, dancing and singing. They had good reason to be happy — it was the one-year anniversary of the revolution. Dictator Fulgencio Batista had fled, and charismatic young Fidel Castro had ruled for the past 12 months from his offices at the Habana Libre, formerly the Havana Hilton.
The requisitioned hotel was the scene of a special party that New Year’s Eve 1959. Where a tuxedoed Conrad Hilton once danced with Hollywood starlet Ann Miller, a socialist leader in soldier’s fatigues celebrated his first year in power by welcoming guests from America — a group of prominent African-Americans assembled by former world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, who wore a traditional hat called a guajiro for the occasion.
Since 1935, two years before he became world champ, Louis had been a partner in Rowe-Louis-Fischer-Lockhart, an all-Black public relations firm in New York City. Castro greatly respected Louis’ athletic skills and his inspirational rise from poverty as the son of an Alabama sharecropper. And that admiration helped the boxer and his firm land a gig to organize the influential Americans toasting the arrival of 1960 with Castro. The objective of what was called the Joe Louis Commission: Assess the island as a welcoming destination for African-Americans.
Colored people in the U.S. do not have any place to go in the winter except Cuba.
Joe Louis, boxer
Cuba desperately needed an infusion of tourists. Upon seizing power, the Castro regime lost no time in overturning the old order, starting with the glittery casinos built and operated primarily by American mobsters like Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano. On the morning after victory, Castro’s rebels and supporters began trashing these potent symbols of political corruption and foreign exploitation, smashing slot machines in the streets of Havana. “The greatest indignity of all was saved for the Riviera,” writes T.J. English in Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba … and Then Lost It to the Revolution. “In an act of revolutionary audacity, campesinos brought into the city a truckload of pigs and set them loose in the lobby of the hotel and casino, squealing, tracking mud across the floors, shitting and peeing all over Lansky’s pride and joy.”
Great agitprop — and now, a year later, the big hotels stood empty, their Cuban employees were out of work and a $60 million industry had evaporated, University of California, Riverside, historian Ralph Crowder notes in the online reference BlackPast.org.
But Castro had a plan: the National Tourist Initiative. El jefe figured he’d replace vice-loving upper-class White American tourists with middle-class African-Americans. After all, the nascent civil rights movement in the U.S. had a long way to go in dismantling the Jim Crow era. With segregation still legal, hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions had license to deny services to African-American travelers. And the welcome mat was rolled up at most White-owned resorts in the Caribbean.
Plus, the tourism initiative dovetailed with the Castro regime’s agenda to address racism and foster integration on the island. A year into socialism, many Afro-Cubans still experienced overt discrimination. By introducing African-American tourism, Castro thought he could show both Afro-Cubans and African-Americans how much more progressive Cuba was than the United States. All he needed was someone to bring them.
Enter Louis and his public relations outfit. They rounded up an interracial but predominantly Black delegation of 71 notables, including John H. Sengstacke Sr., publisher and general editor of the Chicago Daily Defender, the largest Black-owned daily in the world; Loren Miller, an attorney and editor-publisher of the California Eagle; and representatives of the New York Amsterdam News and Johnson Publications (Ebony and Jet magazines).
Traveling to Cuba on Castro’s dime, the group spent the last week of December 1959 and the first week of January 1960 touring the island, checking out attractions and facilities. The upshot: Louis and his crew negotiated contracts worth $282,000 to promote Cuban tourism in Black print media.
Back stateside, creatives in Louis’ firm drummed up a tagline for the short-lived Cuban campaign: “First class treatment — as a first class citizen.” But it was one of Louis’ comments at the New Year’s Eve party that resonated more powerfully: “Colored people in the U.S. do not have any place to go in the winter except Cuba.”
This triggered a major backlash. Arguably the first African-American known and admired nationally, Louis became a pariah seemingly overnight. He was now seen as a traitor — Castro’s lackey, his PR flack. The FBI, startled by the former champ’s work for a communist government, began to surveil him.
The public scrutiny became so intense that Louis renounced the deal with Castro and resigned from the PR firm. On June 2, 1960, he issued a statement noting he was “grieved” by “the conclusions many people have drawn from my association with the Cuban government,” and as a result he felt “depressed and confused.” Significantly, a White-owned American PR firm had also been hired to work for the Cuban government, but its employees did not face public ire.
When Louis threw in the towel, Castro won a TKO on propaganda points: He could boast the U.S. was racist, and Cuba was not. The PR firm was one of many Louis business ventures to go belly-up, and in the end, the ill-fated Castro-Louis connection became one of many injustices — large and small — largely overlooked in American history books. But given the potential today for rapid-fire public condemnation via social media, it’s worth recalling that even in the pre-internet era, a beloved athlete could be publicly maligned for leaning away from the political mainstream.