Home strikes a chord for Lowcountry legend Frazier

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comNovember 19, 2011 

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My race needs no special defense,

for the past history of them in this country

proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere.

All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.

-- Robert Smalls of Beaufort, 1895

Joe Frazier was always coming home.

He left Beaufort County as a teenager with a one-way ticket on the 20th century's underground railroad -- the Greyhound bus.

But even after winning a gold medal and the world heavyweight boxing championship in the Olympics, and beating Muhammad Ali in the "Fight of the Century" in Madison Square Garden, Smokin' Joe Frazier always came home.

Frazier glided home in a maroon Cadillac limousine after earning $2.5 million for that 1971 bout with Ali. On his mind was a new home for his mother, Dolly Frazier, so she too might escape the Laurel Bay farm where she and the late Rubin Frazier had 12 children, and raised corn, peas, peanuts, watermelon, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, collard greens, turnips, cabbage, horses, mules, cows and hogs.

For years, Frazier came home to a plantation he bought near Yemassee, laughing that he owned an acre for every day of the year.

He came home to do an exhibition fight at the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort to benefit the local Economic Opportunity Commission.

He came home to be squired around in an automobile to visit friends and relations in a place so different from his adopted hometown of Philadelphia.

Frazier's funeral was held there last Monday. The champ died Nov. 7 of liver cancer at age 67. Thousands paid their last respects, newspapers reported. Ali was there. The Rev. Jesse Jackson led the service, chiding Philadelphia for having a statue for the fictitious boxer "Rocky," rather than Frazier, the real deal.

At a memorial service held Wednesday morning at Bethesda Christian Fellowship on St. Helena Island, Dannette Frazier told of one of her uncle's last trips home. He came for her mother's funeral two years ago. He couldn't get anyone to drive him, so he drove himself. He didn't dare tell anyone, because he was legally blind.

Dannette Frazier said he told them: "All I did was follow the tail light in front of me."

AT HOME

If anybody symbolizes what the Gullah people can do on a level playing field, it's Frazier.

His life has been dissected this past week by publications worldwide. The Economist wrote: "To say that Joe Frazier had a left hook was like saying the Tomcat jet fighter is an aeroplane." Dave Anderson's New York Times column was headlined: "A champion who won inside the ring and out."

But at home, the people who knew him as "Billy Boy" still remember wrestling with him as a child.

Thomas C. Barnwell Jr. of Hilton Head Island recalls buying a set of Frazier's golf clubs from one of his sisters. "I thought it would help the ball go in the hole, but it didn't," he said.

Jacob Martin of Bluffton says his sister Mary and her husband, Rivers Riley, who took young Frazier in in Philadelphia. His sister Margaret was married to James Martin of Seabrook, who got Frazier his job in the slaughterhouse where he famously punched carcasses in chasing his audacious dream to be like Joe Louis.

Connections like that are how Gullah talents spread far from the South Carolina coastline, where that era's Jim Crow laws and societal norms stifled them.

SPECIAL GIFTS

As Beaufort celebrated its native son Wednesday, it was clear that not all the big ones got away.

Bluesman Cool John Ferguson of St. Helena Island sounded like Jimi Hendrix when he played "The Star Spangled Banner" on his electric guitar for the memorial service at the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park in downtown Beaufort.

When alto Carolyn Hewins of St. Helena Island sang the solo portion of "In The Midst Of It All" with Bethesda Christian's Voices of Victory choir, she was every bit as good as Aretha Franklin.

And many say they've never heard a better singing voice than Frazier's brother, the late Rubin "Deac" Frazier.

"Oh, my God. It would raise the hair on the back of your neck," said Anita Singleton-Prather. "It was a bass like none other."

Deac Frazier sang with Singleton-Prather's Gullah Kinfolk choir. He often sang with his mother, "Miss Dolly," who taught all her children the Bible and singing at Israelite Baptist Church. Her baby even had a band at one time called Smokin' Joe Frazier and the Knockouts.

But nobody ever touched Deac Frazier. They say that if a spiritual had five stanzas, he knew seven. And though it wasn't in Madison Square Garden for all the world to see, his tearful performance of "Nowhere To Lay My Head" at his mother's funeral touched a chord that explains why the younger brother he adored would always come home.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Related content:

Listen to Rubin "Deac" Fraser sing "Amazing Grace"

Beaufort celebrates dignity, determination of Smokin' Joe Frazier

Beaufort remembers native son Smokin' Joe Fraser

Joe Fraser biography

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