CHAMPAIGN, ILLINOIS (TBP)– At age 75, most of us would be happy just to be alive. Most of us would be happy just to be in our right mind. Most of us would be happy if we still had teeth. Most of us would be happy if we could still walk without the need of assistance.
Anyone who has met Khair Aazaad Ali, has been stunned by the vibrancy and energy that surrounds his life. No one believes he is 75 years old. Born Freddie Davis in 1936, Khair admits he was a curious lad who should have never gone on to success in the boxing world or even be alive after some of his childhood antics back on the Mississippi farm where his parents worked as sharecroppers before moving north to Illinois.
Those early years would shape the heart of the man in ways that Khair is still growing to understand. When you mention sharecropping to people today, black or white, young or old, they have no clue as to what it was or how it worked.
To understand black sharecropping, you have to understand slavery. After more than 400 years of providing free labor and with marriage and reading outlawed for blacks, young Freddie Davis was part of those first generations of African Americans whose parents were born into freedom, and could actually choose to be together as a family unit.
Former slaves knew how to farm. That was part of their training. But they were never taught to manage or allowed to become educated enough to understand the economics of farming. And so when sharecropping became one of the very few available options for the descendants of freed slaves , it was the ultimate American Free Enterprise deception . It was basically an unregulated slave buyback program.
Whites in Mississippi and throughout the south knew they could not legally own blacks as slaves anymore. They also knew that they had insufficient labor to manage their farms. Hundreds of years of slavery had caused many jobs to be viewed as “slave labor” and beneath what young whites were willing to do.
With the economy of a nation at stake, abolitionists got the political victory they wanted over the south. It would take another 100 years of black folk fighting for the greater moral victory on their own. And so like the housing scandals of today in which so many were lured into unscrupulous subprime loans, blacks were lured into contracts to remain on plantations on a lend lease basis.
On its face it seemed like a fair answer to all. Sharecropping provided an actual job to those who were too poorly skilled and incapable of reading to work anyplace else. It also provided the labor necessary for America to feed itself and to export goods to the rest of the developing world. The only problem was, former slave masters controlled all the numbers.
Sharecropping families had to pay for everything provided to them. Housing, farming materials and any money they borrowed to survive until the crop yield came in. These loans were often at inflated rates of interest and the plantation owner also determined what part of any yield would be left for the sharecropping family to keep and sell.
At the end of the day, an uneducated sharecropper was in deeper contractual bondage to the plantation owner than his forefathers was to the slave master. Khair recalls how his father was a self-made but illiterate man who educated himself and learned many different skills to support the family. Others weren’t as fortunate.
Young Freddie Davis saw Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad still in action as families who were starving and deeply indebted to the plantation owner would sneak away in the middle of the night and stop by his parent’s home making their way to freedom and family up north. And not unlike the days of slavery, law enforcement using dogs and hired hands would try to track these families, only this time, under a legal and binding warrant of walking out on a debt. The ones who were caught, were given police records. Nobody ever talked about 400 years back pay owed to slaves. That was the past.
This is what young Freddie Davis brought with him to Illinois when his father finally called it quits and packed up the family to move out of Mississippi.
“You should want for others what you want for yourself.” Somewhere in his young life those words came to Freddie’s mind and 70 years later, never left his heart. Like his father, Freddie grew to become his own man. He was a great sportsman but his fierce need to be independent made team sports impossible. Boxing, however, was a discipline Freddie Davis could embrace with a passion.
With boxing he could work out his frustrations. He could go as far as his will would take him. And at 99 wins 1 draw, and 7 losses, this 1959 Regional Golden Gloves Champion and distant cousin to Cassius Clay, who became the celebrated Muhammad Ali, Freddie Davis took a more humble journey as Khair Aazaad Ali and decided to walk away from the corruption of going pro.
Khair returned home to Champaign, Illinois a younger version of the dapper man he remains. His fierce independence would ultimately take him through three marriages- each wife recognizing he was on a journey they could not fully understand and yet remained devoted to the friendships they would each share for the rest of their lives.
Khair started a Taxi service, then went into entertainment as a singer. He also developed an innovative strut for couples called Touchless Dancing.
With each stop along the way Khair paused to help others to help themselves. Khair worked with friends to start youth boxing and other community programs to prevent kids from being sucked into the growing violence of the drug culture.
All this time and after all these years, you would think somebody would have told this old man to sit his behind down. But looking into his eyes, it is easy to see, there is a spirit there that can still pack a punch.
Khair never forgot the lessons of his early childhood and wanted to share those lessons with a people he believes have forgotten where they came from. His biography “From Freddie to Freedom” is not just about his life, but a look into the journey that many African Americans still struggle through today.
The book can be ordered through his website khairali.com or freddietofreedom.com. Money from purchases goes to support the Up From Slavery Financial Institution (upfromslavery.org) founded by Khair Ali to fund new business ideas in underserved poor communities. ■