Ethics Hero Emeritus: Canada Lee (1907-1952)

I bet you have never heard of Canada Lee.

Most Americans, even black Americans haven’t, yet he was a remarkable, talented and courageous black man who made a difference in our history and our culture against daunting challenges. He should have been entered into the Ethics Alarms Heroes’ Hall of Honor long ago. This post will remedy that slight.

He was born to West Indian parents (and thus cannot accurately be called an “African American”) and named Lionel Cornelius Canegata on March 3, 1907 in New York City’s San Juan Hill district. A musical prodigy, Canegata studied the violin at the age of seven, and by the age of twelve was playing concerts.  The compensation was sparse, however, so when he was 14, Canegata ran away to the Saratoga Race Track in upstate New York to become a successful jockey until he grew too tall for the job and became a horse exerciser for prominent racehorse owners. Once more seeking a path out of persistent poverty, Canegata changed course again, and set out to become a boxer.

He won 90 of 100 fights,  the Metropolitan Inter-City and Junior National Championships, and the national amateur lightweight title. Before one match, an announcer butchered his name, and Canegata somehow became‘Canada Lee.’ Lee liked it and kept it.

In 1926, Canada Lee turned professional, and by 1930, he was a leading contender for the welterweight championship. Lee fought in over 200 fights as a professional boxer, losing only 25.  Fate intervened with that path: a punch to the right eye detached his retina, and ended his boxing career just as it was getting promising and profitable.  Like most boxers, Lee blew through the money he made during his boxing career, an estimated $90,000 (roughly equivalent to $1,644,684 today).  “Just threw it away,” Lee later admitted. Later, Lee lobbied for insurance, health care, financial consultation and retirement homes for fighters. “The average boxer possesses little education,” he said in 1946. “If he winds up broke, he has no trade, no education and nobody to turn to.” Continue reading