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Photographer seeks to identify kids in Muhammad Ali photos

Muhammad Ali was mobbed by fans at Hynes Auditorium during his 1977 visit to Boston.
Muhammad Ali was mobbed by fans at Hynes Auditorium during his 1977 visit to Boston.(Curtis, Bill Globe Staff)

Muhammad Ali was no stranger to strong emotions. His fans adored him. His opponents in and outside the ring reviled him.

But the legendary athlete and political firebrand looked taken aback when a little girl — one of about 100 children who had lined up to meet him at Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in Roxbury — burst into tears on his lap.

That moment on Jan. 29, 1977, was captured by Marlena Richardson, a volunteer at the school. The color photograph shows a grade-school girl in a pink coat, her face crumpled in a sob and her fists held close to her chest, as if she was preparing to box the heavyweight champion.

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“I think he was surprised that she cried,” said Richardson, 71. “Maybe she was afraid of his fame or fortune, or I don’t know what. I was surprised.”

Muhammad Ali greeted children at the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in 1977.
Muhammad Ali greeted children at the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in 1977.(Marlena Richardson)

Richardson could ask the girl why she looked so terrified. But she doesn’t know who she is.

She rediscovered the photo, along with two others, in storage boxes at her home after hearing of Ali’s death at age 74 on June 3. She would like to give the snapshots — now probably priceless remembrances — to the children pictured, and she hopes the public will be able to help her identify them.

“It would mean so much to me,” she said. “I think [the children] would be proud and happy and feel like the circle remains unbroken, that finally they got these. And maybe it’ll bring a tear and a smile to their faces.”

The other photos depict Ali holding a young African-American girl with pigtails who appears to be laughing, and a blond boy in a blue turtleneck.

Ali was in Boston for a benefit boxing exhibition, the proceeds of which went to the Elma Lewis School, which provided arts and communications education to children in Dorchester and Roxbury. But kids came from all over Boston and the suburbs to meet the superstar.

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“There was a huge crowd of children,” Richardson said. A cordon had to be put up around Ali’s chair “so that they wouldn’t trample each other, [and so] they wouldn’t all crowd on his lap at once.”

The crying girl in the photo was a notable exception among the dozens of children who couldn’t wait to meet Ali.

“I kept saying, ‘One at a time, one at a time,’ ” Richardson said.

Marlena Richardson was a volunteer at the school in 1977.
Marlena Richardson was a volunteer at the school in 1977.(Marlena Richardson)

Daniel Richardson, 78, chairman of the board of the Elma Lewis School at the time, recalled Ali’s patience. He talked to each child as they sat on his lap.

“He talked about their futures, what they were going to do with their lives,” he said. “And they of course were very excited, because this was a guy they only saw on television.”

Stephen Borden, 57, was a student at the school at the time. He remembered being chosen to pick up Ali — whom he called a “magical giant” — at the airport, and smiling the whole way to the school.

“He was so tall, huge, I had to look up and never stopped staring,” Borden said.

Borden has his own photo with Ali but was unable to identify the children in Richardson’s photos.

Ali may have been warm and inviting with the children, but with other adults, his signature swagger was back on display. At a press conference at the school that morning to promote the fund-raiser, he told reporters:

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Marlena Richardson hopes the public can help her identify the children in the photos.
Marlena Richardson hopes the public can help her identify the children in the photos.(Marlena Richardson)

“We just appeal to all the people to just spend a few dollars and buy one ticket. Plus they’ll be watching, in their lifetime, the greatest fighter of all time. I say it with a little smile, but it’s the truth.”

About 5,000 people heeded his call, attending the charity exhibition at Hynes Auditorium several hours later. A Globe article described how a car dealer, a reporter, and a club fighter took on the champ, to the crowd’s delight.

Soon, Marlena Richardson hopes, three more people will be able to recount that day nearly four decades ago — with the photos to prove it.


Vivian Wang can be reached at vivian.wang@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vwang3.