Joe Frazier’s decision to leave Beaufort was more nuanced than many might perceive, and his relationship with his hometown remained complicated after the boxing great found fame.
That’s the picture painted in the latest book on Frazier, “Smokin’ Joe: The Life of Joe Frazier,” written by former Philadelphia Daily News writer Mark Kram Jr. and due to be for sale in June.
The sequence of events leading the future heavyweight boxing champion to leave his Laurel Bay home as a teenager was a slow burn. He verbally sparred with a foreman on a local farm while defending a young black boy, pummeled an older boy and a Marine who targeted Frazier with racist slurs, and eventually took stock of the limited economic opportunities and ongoing conflicts for a black man in segregated Beaufort and boarded a Greyhound bus for New York.
Contrary to what might be public perception, Kram writes, Frazier wasn’t chased from Beaufort by a racist mob.
“Indignities accumulated upon him in a slow drip, day by day,” Kram wrote, according to an advance copy of the book subject to final changes. “...Frazier left not because he was in any imminent danger but because he sensed that by staying he would indeed come to a disagreeable end.”
During two years reporting the book, Kram visited Beaufort twice for extended trips, including for a Frazier family reunion in 2017, he wrote in the book’s acknowledgments. He talked to members of the Trask family, which owned the farm where Frazier’s mother Dolly worked, and with Frazier’s family and neighbors, consulted Beaufort historian Lawrence Rowland and combed Beaufort Gazette archives on microfilm at the library.
Frazier died in 2011 at age 67 after being diagnosed with liver cancer. He was memorialized at the time with multiple services in Beaufort.
The book documents Frazier’s upbringing as a member of a large family who grew up poor on 10 acres in the Laurel Bay area. Known as “Billy Boy” in Beaufort, Frazier famously honed his punches on a burlap sack hung from a large oak tree and filled with old rags, corn cobs, Spanish moss and bricks.
Frazier was in the crowd as a 6-year-old boy when Joe Louis visited Beaufort in 1950. He was later inspired to become a fighter by his uncle’s vow that Frazier could be the next Louis.
Frazier wasn’t a bully but didn’t tolerate being pushed around or seeing the same happen to others, Kram writes, a stance that led to multiple street fights and Frazier being hired by schoolmates for protection .
He didn’t return to Robert Smalls High School after his freshman year and later moved to New York to live with his brother, Tommy, before making his way to Philadelphia where he would become heavyweight champion.
“Smokin’ Joe” tells of Frazier’s return to Beaufort after defeating Muhammad Ali in a 1971 bout dubbed “Fight of the Century.”
A couple of months after defeating Ali, Frazier purchased the 366-acre Brewton Plantation as a new home for his mother, returning to work the land several times a year when he was in town. The property was the site of an epic Fourth of July party that lasted a week and welcomed hundreds of friends, family members and curious nearby residents, according to the book.
But for his mom, Frazier might have been loath to return to the South Carolina Lowcountry, the book notes.
After beating Ali, Frazier delivered a speech to state lawmakers in Columbia calling for racial unity.
He later proposed building a playground in Beaufort that would have served white and black children, with a single water fountain. Joe Hand, a member of Frazier’s management company in town to work on the park idea, was advised by police to leave town and the plan died, Hand told Kram.
“They did not want a black person building a playground in a white neighborhood that was racially integrated,” Hand is quoted as saying.