Going To The Mat With Gender And Race: Black Professional Wrestlers In The ‘Pre-TV’ Wrestling Era.

Wrestling as both a martial art and sport is thousands of years old. There are cave paintings in France and Mongolia depicting grapplers that are over 15,000 years old. There are shockingly modern looking grappling holds and take-down defense depictions that have been found in the 5th Dynasty tomb of Ptahhotep. The 5th Dynasty was approximately 2,400 years BCE.  In Greece there was a wrestling champion named Aristocles, but you likely know him as Plato, the nickname came from the word ‘Platon’ meaning “wide or broad-shouldered” and Socrates wrote: “I swear it upon Zeus an outstanding runner cannot be the equal of an average wrestler”. 

In 1520, a twenty-nine-year-old King Henry the VIII of England challenged another royal wrestling enthusiast, King François of Angoulême, the 1st of France, age 23, to a wrestling match at the historic “Field of the Cloth of Gold” meeting. This was  an attempt to preserve the peace established by the Treaty of London of 1518. The signatories were Burgundy, France, England, the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands, the Papal States and Spain, all of whom had agreed not to attack one another and to come to the aid of any that were attacked. Additionally this created an alliance against the Habsburg emperor, Charles V, who had been elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1519.

The affair was quite the bacchanal: over 4,100 animals were slaughtered and many barrels, casks and jugs of strong drink were imbibed. Both monarchs exchanged gifts and declarations of their “undying love and loyalty” to each other.  In the midst of all that spectacular entertainment, Henry beat François in an archery contest, and since he had a king sized ego, he challenged his Valois guest to a wrestling match.

François, by all accounts initially demurred, likely because he feared that if he bested the notoriously vain Henry Tudor, it would spoil the chance at  a lasting alliance. But François was to his very quick a sportsman, he loved archery, falconry, horseback riding, hunting, jousting, tennis [courte-paume] as well as wrestling, was man of chivalrous nature and high aspirations, so he finally consented to wrestle his Tudor peer.  

Historical accounts of the bout itself are scarce. The two kings went in search of a suitable place for a match.  I’d imagine that they were both attired in brocade and other royal fineries. Both men were renowned for their great height. Henry excelled in Cornish wrestling (a style established in Cornwall in South-West England), several centuries hence.

The referee is known as a ‘stickler’. It is believed that the popular meaning of the word to be persnickety or unduly precise originates from this term. The wrestlers in the Cornish style both wear tough jackets enabling them to gain better grip on their opponent. All holds are taken upon the other wrestler’s jacket, grabbing of the wrists or fingers is forbidden as well as any holding below the waist. Although all holds are to be taken upon the jacket the flat of the hand is allowed to be used to push or deflect an opponent.  

The objective of Cornish wrestling is to throw your opponent and make him land as flat as possible on his back. Three sticklers (referees) watch and rule on each bout whilst also recording the points scored. Four pins are located on the back of a wrestler, two at the back of each shoulder and two either side just above the buttocks. If a wrestler manages to throw his opponent flat onto his back, simultaneously scoring with all 4 pins they score four points in that single throw and this is called a “Back” to which the bout is then finished and the throwing wrestler is the winner.

François wrestled Gouren (a style of folk wrestling that was established in Brittany), or Breton wrestling. In gouren the grapplers wear special white shirts or vests(roched) tied with a belt and black trousers (bragoù), and try to throw each other to the ground by grappling the other’s roched. A victory (lamm) is declared when the opponent is on his back on the ground, with the winner standing. Victory is only achieved when both the opponent’s shoulder blades hit the ground at the same time, and before any other part of the body.  The primary difference between these two styles was in the type of jacket used: the Breton jacket was tight, while the Cornish wrestler wore it loose.

François was able to throw the older and larger Henry to win the match, the two were said to have left on good terms, but despite appearances, either Henry’s historically bad temper or the mostly volatile relations between England and France eventually doomed the pact. So France remained geographically encircled by the Habsburg monarchy and François turned to alliances with the Lutheran princes of the Holy Roman Empire and the Sultan of Turkey. However Henry would later align with François again in 1527 when they signed the Treaty of Amiens which bound the two together against Charles V.

The New World

Despite the popularity of the sport in England, King Henry the VIII was both a fan and participant, the British colonies in the ‘New World’ that would come to be the foundations of the United States hadn’t always been a haven for sports. The Puritans frowned upon most diversions that weren’t directly related to labor or religious practice. 

But it didn’t take long for wrestling to get a hold on the new Americans. The Indigenous people of the Americas had very established wrestling traditions, however the scholarship has been fairly sparse with regard to the format, rules, the techniques and training for their grappling arts. Some have theorized that in addition to physical training and combat applications, there may have been some religious ritual applications of wrestling.    

During the 17th and 18th centuries wrestling once again was transformed back from a form of combat into a popular spectator sport. It became the major contact sport among men of all classes in America. The primary wrestling style of that day was ”collar and elbow”, named for its starting position: standing face to face, each wrestler placed one hand behind his opponent’s neck and the other hand behind his elbow. This form diminished dirty tactics, such as “bull rushing” and throwing dirt in the opponent’s eyes, and allowed for different techniques specific to a wrestler’s size and strength. 

In the back-country of Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and the Carolinas, wrestling was quite popular, particularly in the settlements of Scots-Irish colonists. Matches often were rough enough that the Assembly of Virginia got involved and forbade illegal holds prohibiting “maiming ‘by gouging, plunking or putting out an eye, biting, kicking or stomping upon'” an opponent. However, like plenty of laws, the back-country largely ignored these restrictions. The aforementioned Cornish wrestling was the progenitor of this type of grappling and over time this coalesced into a style known as “Catch-As-Catch-Can.

Rev. James Maury’s Academy at Fredericksburg, Virginia, was an institution which turned young men from good families into scholars and, in the case of young George Washington, into able wrestlers. By the age of 18, the big, shy Washington apparently held a collar and elbow wrestling championship that was at least county-wide and possibly colony-wide. Washington never lost his touch. At the age 47, ten years before he became the first President of the United States, the Commander of the Continental Armies was able to defeat seven consecutive challengers from the Massachusetts Volunteers.

Abraham Lincoln was an accomplished wrestler as a young man. According to History.com, he was defeated only once in approximately 300 matches. Carl Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln says he once challenged an entire crowd of onlookers after defeating an opponent. “I’m the big buck of this lick. If any of you want to try it, come on and whet your horns,” Lincoln reportedly said, but there were no takers.

Lincoln is featured in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame’s “Presidential Grapplers” exhibit with the U.S. Presidents who wrestled, including the aforementioned, John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, who in his fighting trim of 225 lbs, was an intramural heavyweight champion at Yale, and was a fourth generation wrestler in the Taft family. A total of 14 US Presidents wrestled either competitively or recreationally, making it number one with our chiefs of the executive branch. 

In part due to the cross-pollination of regions and cultures that took place during the Civil War, wrestling boomed afterwards and it was common to see wrestling at county fairs, carnivals, holiday celebrations, and military exercises. Of the many styles practiced during those days, only catch-as-catch-can [sometimes shortened to Catch] survived. Over time it evolved into “Folkstyle” , the style used now at the scholastic and collegiate level.

Meanwhile in Europe, at about the same time Graeco-Roman (or Greco-Roman) wrestling (sometimes also called classical wrestling) was also booming. From England to Turkey and even in India, several great champions emerged.  Folkstyle,freestyle and the other descendants of catch-as-catch-can, all allow the use of the wrestler’s or the opponent’s legs in offense and defense unlike Greco-Roman which prohibits holds and trips below the waist.

While I am going to focus on Black participation in wrestling post-Civil War. By no means were slaves and free Black people absent from wrestling in the Antebellum period, however for obvious reasons slaves can’t be professionals since they can’t truly benefit from their own labor, skills and talents. But even in the North free Blacks were largely forbidden to wrestle Whites Slave turned Boxer Tom Molineaux’s owner granted him his freedom plus a sum of $500 as a reward Molineaux after he’d earned his master what would be the equivalent of hundreds of thousands in today’s dollars. So Molineaux, America’s biggest and first boxing star, was able to go on to box in the bare-knuckle ring against top White fighters. He even had two epic donnybrooks with Tom Cribb, the best bare knuckle fighter of the time.

African wrestling survivalisms among enslaved populations came from a variety of traditions, including the Nigerian of Mgba and its feminine counterpart Mgba Umunwanyi as well as the Sengalese art of Laamb, which is the Wolof word for wrestling, is derived from Serer Fara-Lamb Siin and often featured leg-wrapping techniques, which distinguished it from Collar-and-Elbow practiced by the growing Irish and Scottish immigrant populations in the U.S. The winner is whoever puts his opponent on the ground, that can mean his back, rear, stomach, or hands and knees. It is ancient and meets at the nexus of ritual and sport, planted in the sand, rooted in the essential village traditions that some Africans carried with them into their bondage in the New World.

In addition to occasional boxing matches and races, slaves wrestled each other to, as Frederick Douglas wrote, “win laurels” and display their physical prowess to young women in the audience. Douglas noted that sports were encouraged by plantation owners, including wrestling and boxing, which Douglas deemed “wild and low sports peculiar to semi-civilized people,” but that “rational enjoyment” was not. Douglas felt that encouraging slaves’ participation in ‘low’ sports, was in part to prevent other pursuits: reading, writing, or perhaps, planning a rebellion. He explained that plantation owners encouraged slaves to vent their aggression this way since it was “among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection.”

In the sport of wrestling on American shores it took the emergence of a freed man Viro Small, AKA Black Sam or Sam Hadley to have a Black man become a champion. He became a wrestler in Vermont and New York from 1874 until a few years prior to the century’s turn. At 5’ 9 ¼” 184 he would have been more than two inches and about 40 pounds above the average for a man born in his time, [like many enslaved people his exact date of birth is unknown] it’s believed he was born in 1854, in Buford, South Carolina. 

By his mid-teens, now freed, he was boxing and perhaps wrestling up north. In 1870 he went to St. Albans, VT., and remained until 1881, when he came to New York to give  wrestling exhibitions at Owney Geoghegan’s Old House at Home. While in Vermont he won numerous matches, defeating Jack Callan, William Downey and others.

On April 27, 1882, he defeated William Johnson, of Rutland, VT., in a collar-and-elbow match for a purse. In St. Albans and Rutland VT. Small won 63 matches between 1882 and 1892 and the Vermont Collar and Elbow Championship twice. These wins made him possibly the first champion of African descent in the United States, but there are conflicting accounts and competing claims about this distinction. These titles also gave Small the chance to work the county fair circuit. 

As previously indicated, biting, gouging, kicking, punching, scratching and slugging were all forbidden in collar and elbow and frowned upon, but rather common, in catch-as-catch-can. In catch-as-catch-can the membrane between boxing wrestling was often quite permeable. 

In September 1882, Small had a fight with Billy McCallum. McCallum clearly took the argument between them to heart and made an attempt on Small’s life, shooting him in the neck. For attempted murder McCallum was sentenced by Judge Cowing to State Prison for eighteen months.The slug had to be left in his neck,but by October 16, 1883 he was able to defeat George Hicks. 

A report from The New York Times–October 16, 1883: “The match was collar and elbow, two out of three falls.  Black Sam was evidently the favorite, and his herculean proportions showed the contestants to be badly matched.  Hicks acted on the defensive in the first round, which lasted eight minutes, and resulted in his overthrow by the formidable right leg of Black Sam.  The second round lasted 10 minutes, the colored man being thrown, much to the disgust of the majority present.  The third round was tedious, and lasted nearly 20 minutes.  Three times Hicks nearly threw his opponent, but was finally overcome by the superior strength of the black man.” 

Based out of the Bastille on the Bowery, Small wrestled and boxed against both Black and White opponents and worked on the side as the establishment’s bouncer. Charles Morrow Wilson, in his 1959 book “The Magnificent Scufflers”, writes: 

“Viro was the right man of any hour. He was warm natured, courteous, and sympathetic toward the live and let live customers, yet he was also strong of body and will power. Though Viro stalwartly declined to get rough with any customer with minor transgressions such as running out of money, any patron who was disposed to start fights or bully or use objectionable language was as good as in the gutter the moment he opened up. Viro was also a man of extremely rapid motions and almost uncanny talents for removing pistols or knives and replacing drawn weapons with fractured arms or wrists or tranquilizing uppercuts, but always, of course, in a courteous manner.

It appears his last collar and elbow match was in 1885, but it appears he continued on in catch-as-catch-can and boxing matches until about 1887.  There is a very fine documentary by Elliott Marquez on Viro Small, entitled “Black Sam’s Statue”-https://vimeo.com/120864245

After Small, a Black circus strong-woman named Irene Bess may have become Europe’s first Black professional wrestler during her carnival days in the late 1800s and early 1900s (although I have yet to locate any supporting documents), but it was two of her sons who would make the history books as two of the best Black personalities in the early days of Great Britain’s pro wrestling industry. Also, a wrestler named Ila Vincent performed in America in the early 1910s but struggled to find opponents, finding more success in Russia and several European cities. 

                                                                                                                                                      The next great Black grappler to make a mark on history was Reginald Berry AKA Reginald Siki, 1st World Colored Heavyweight Champion, tall, 6’2 ½” He was able to speak 7 languages fluently. He was the first Black man to win the Wrestling Heavyweight World Championship. By 1923 was traveling the wrestling world and when the Zybysko brothers stranded him in Europe one year he was able get around with ease because he spoke fluent Arabic. He returned triumphant to the USA with his White, Estonian wife, Jarmilla and 

Berry was keen on resuming his career as a top level wrestler. The ring name of Siki was undoubtedly a reference to the Senegalese-born boxer Battling Siki, who became a world-wide phenomenon in 1922 when he stunned boxing fans by defeating light heavyweight champion Georges Carpentier in Paris, France.

One story has it that American soldiers who had seen Battling Siki fight in Europe gave the name to Berry after seeing him box, though it is more likely that Berry either adopted the name himself, or was given it by a promoter hoping to capitalize on Battling Siki’s sudden fame. He traveled throughout Canada as well, but it was in Europe where he became perhaps second only to Jack Johnson as the biggest Black American sports star in the world. His time in mainland Europe was nearly idyllic, he was a top draw in countries like France, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, and Bulgaria to name a few, where he faced some of Europe’s best and won often. While he most likely still felt racism in various parts of Europe, at least in Europe he was able to pit his skills against the elite of the pro wrestling circuit, including men who were in line for multiple European championships.

after converting to Islam, he became, Kemal Abdur Rahman, marrying Mildred, who was now Mildred Abdur Rahman. The last name was sometimes spelled as one word, “Abdurrahman.” With the change also brought a promotional tactic of billing him as an Ethiopian wrestling hero, and he was billed that way in advertising pieces. A reported 45,000 spectators attended back to back nights to see Bulgarian wrestling star Dan Kolov, a 3-time European Heavyweight Champion, face Regis Siki in Sofia, Bulgaria.

He finally lost the World Colored Wrestling Championship in 1935 to George Godfrey in a contest in Brussels, Belgium. Feab Smith Williams AKA George Godfrey or The Leiperville Shadow was 6’3” 220-260, 249 when he boxed Primo Carnera. While he was mostly a boxer,he showed ability as a wrestler.  A Congolese boxer and wrestler, Jim Wango, had his popularity in Germany suddenly curtailed by the rise of Nazism and he was denied basic services to include medical care. Once he fell ill his fate was sealed and he died of kidney failure 3rd April 1935.

Another prominent Black wrestler who traversed the period when America’s infatuation with radio was changing to a love affair with TV, was Jack Claybourne often referred to as “Gentleman” Jack Claybourne. He was a professional wrestler who had successful stints in England, Canada, Australia, Hawaii, and the United States.  He was 6’0” 210-230 he was also known as Happy Jack, Elmer Claybourn and for a while, in an attempt to slip through the grasp of Jim Crow, Pablo Hernández.. Claybourne won the Kentucky Negro Wrestling Championship from Hallie Samara in Louisville, KY. The following year he lost the title to LeRoy “King Kong” Clayton.

Jack Claybourne won the Negro World Heavyweight and the Light Heavyweight Wrestling Titles in the United States. At the start of his career he worked as “Happy Jack,” he was very close to playing into a Jim Crow era, Black stereotype, but in time he settled on “Gentleman Jack” instead.  Jack Claybourne stood out not only because he tried to break color barriers, but in terms of his in-ring style.  Claybourne’s ability and his ability to connect witn viewers influenced numerous agile wrestlers, most notably “Leaping” Larry Chene and “Sweet Daddy Siki”.  

Another New World: TV Is Coming

Jack Claybourne’s physical gifts are clear, but when he saw that he was never going to reach the top of pro wrestling was when his Pablo Hernández ‘Cuban’ ruse was employed. It was ultimately exposed, so he was locked into the “Chitlin Circuit.”

Just prior to WWII in the 1940s, Claybourne was treated as a little more than a novelty act. He was likely the most well-traveled claimant to the “Negro championship” as he was billed as such in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Arkansas, Arizona, California and Hawaii throughout the 1940s and into the mid-1950s.  Claybourne notably worked with many top heavyweights in the era, his most significant title being the British Empire Heavyweight title, which he exchanged with Billy “The Whip” Watson, when Watson was only a few years from his NWA title reign.  He found more success outside of the continental US, but returned, perhaps he became homesick?

In 1952, Claybourne joined the short list of pro-wrestlers who married in the ring when he tied the knot in an Albuquerque ring.  As pro-wrestling took off in the post-war years thanks to television, Jack Claybourne was among the wrestlers of color who found themselves rarely featured on TV and therefore in less demand.

The first Black Wrestler to find some success when TV took wrestling into the homes of millions of Americans, was George Hardison, who wrestled as Ras Samara, Haille or Seelie Samara. Ras AKA Seelie Samara had a solid career and was  billed at times as “the Sepia Wrestler”, the “Joe Louis of Wrestling”, the “Dusky Samson” or the “Negro Sensation.” There was an incident where a San Jose wrestling promoter had to rearrange the lineup for his May 24, 1944 wrestling card because Jim Henry, who was white, refused to wrestler Samara due to his color.

Despite that he was so widely respected by some in the industry that the great Lou Thesz, who never, ever allowed “The Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers to “go over” [be scripted to defeat] him in the ring, put the legendary Samara over when given the chance. In his career he held the: Pacific Coast Heavyweight Title (San-Francisco-Version)  NWA Canadian Tag Team Titles (Calgary-Version) and NWA Canadian Tag Team Titles (Calgary-Version).

Another holder of the ‘Colored’ or Negro belt was Jim Mitchell, born in Louisville, Kentucky, Mitchell was one of themore successful Black pioneers in professional wrestling. Mitchell was one of the first Blacks in the modern era to break the color barrier, wrestling against white opponents for major promotions.

Early in his career, Mitchell wore a hood to the ring. He called himself “The Black Panther,” and he did battle with other non-white wrestlers. He was in good company, often battling fellow Black stars Seelie Samara and Gentleman Jack Claybourne. 

Jim Mitchell was far from the first Black person to make a living in the sport of professional wrestling, but the Louisville, Kentucky native was among the first to become a star. Trained by the great welterweight champion Jack Reynolds, Mitchell broke into the business in the early 1930s, becoming a main event superstar in the Indianapolis territory by the age of 23.

Mitchell was a proven draw, an athletic and gifted wrestler, with a successful European tour and stops all around the US and Canada, he ended up in Los Angeles, and was a regular at the Olympic Auditorium. Mitchell soon found the confidence to remove the mask and wrestled under his real name. In the late 1940s the LA promoters took a chance and put Mitchell in the ring against White opponents. Mitchell had to work these matches as a “babyface” for fear of what might happen outside the ring if he were a heel. It was still a risk, but Mitchell’s battles with White opponents proved to be a hit, opening the doors for others to follow.

From his adopted home base of Northwest Ohio,to the Boston area, the Pacific Northwest and sunny Southern California as well as tours in Europe, Canada, and Australia, he feuded with some of the biggest heels of his era including Danny McShain, Wild Red Berry, and Martino Angelo. His most storied rivalry was with none other than Gorgeous George, a feud that culminated in a riot in the hot summer of 1949 at the Olympic Auditorium. After George tossed Mitchell from the ring, an angry fan rushed into the ring to take a swing at George. George dispatched the fan quickly, but when he did, the fans rose up and rushed the ring. George and Mitchell slipped through a hidden tunnel to the locker room while a riot, divided largely along racial lines, raged inside the Olympic.

 He was a trailblazer whose exploits were overshadowed by the age of television and the rise of a new generation of stars, not the least of which was Bobo Brazil. In addition to “The Black Panther” Jim Mitchell, Seelie Samara, Woody Strode, Bearcat Wright, and Luther Lindsay, had all known what it was like to being limited at times to only working with other Black wrestlers, or mostly non-Whites, except in areas such as Canada, Hawaii,the Northwest and of course overseas. 

If Woodrow Wilson Woolwine Strode were born in 1974, 1984 or 1994 instead of 1914 he would have been a huge star at something, movies, professional wrestling or TV acting, Strode was born in a time when his good looks and powerful physique were largely squandered on smaller roles and mid-card wrestling slots. He did get to battle with Kirk Douglas in ‘Spartacus’ and played the title role of Sergeant Brax Rutledge in the 1960 film Sergeant Rutledge. As with Jim Mitchell, the highlight of his wrestling career was tangling with Gorgeous George.”   

Lester Lindsay was able to find the most sustained success of all those I just named. Born Luther Jacob Goodall he was known as Luther Lindsay. In the early 1950s and ’60s, Lindsay was billed as the U.S. Colored (or Negro) Heavyweight Champion and took part in among the first interracial professional wrestling matches in the United States. Between 1953 and 1956, he faced NWA World Heavyweight Champion Lou Thesz in a series of matches.

Those matches were mostly time limit draws, but he was the first Black to make a challenge to the title and earned Thesz’s respect during these bouts. The champ publicly praising his wrestling ability. He played college football for Norfolk State and nearby Hampton Institute [Now Hampton University] where he was also a CIAA wrestling champion. He played 2 years in the CFL. At 5’9” 235 he was among first proponents of weight training in the world of pro wrestling and benched 450+. He was in many ways the ‘Jackie Robinson’ of Professional Wrestling’.He faced Thesz in Texas in 1955 and Ron Wright in Kingsport TN, with the National Guard called up as a deterrent to rioting. Race kept him from being a world champion, but he bested Lou Thesz in 1961 and handled an extremely ugly incident, on-air, when Ike Eakins hurled racist slurs at him. In his career he won several national and regional titles,he’s been named to the Stampede Wrestling Hall of Fame and WWE Hall of Fame. He was able to be ‘put over’ even versus popular White wrestlers. Like most Black wrestlers of this era he was a “babyface” or face. 

Not until “The Big Cat” “King of Wrestling” Ernie Ladd was there a truly successful Black “heel.” ‘Thunderbolt Patterson, ‘Sailor’ Art Thomas AKA “The Body” “Hercules” or “Seaman’’ Art Thomas had varying levels of success. Thomas particularly had some highlights: he challenged “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, he won the NWA Texas Title, which was his first Championship in 1962. He and Bobo Brazil defeated Gorilla Monsoon and Bill Watts for the WWWF tag-team belt, also he wrestled and lost to WWWF World Heavyweight Champion, Bruno Sammartino, but won the WWA Title from Baron Von Raschke. Others like: Don Kindred Alex “Black Panther” Keffner, Joseph Alvin Godfrey AKA The “Original” Rufus Jones, [not Carey L. Lloyd AKA Rufus R. “Freight Train” Jones], Frank James all held verious versions of the Colored/Negro belt, but more miltant Claude “Thunderbolt” Patterson, swam against the current.

Dusty Rhodes, Blackjack Mulligan and others admittedly borrowed from his promo style. He had enough size at 6’0” 242-255, he looked the part, he had ‘pop’ in wrestling jargon that means charisma that comes across in the ring. He was one of the best and most innovative talkers of all-time.  Patterson embraced the black vernacular unlike most of his early TV era brethren. He developed a distinct delivery and coined clever catch phrases long before that was common.  Black wrestlers had long been special attractions and were often unwilling to challenge promoters and peers for fear of losing their spot.  Patterson was willing. He was an athletic, energetic performer with exceptional interview skills. 

His former nemesis Killer Karl Kox said of Patterson: “He could talk the talk and walk the walk.”At shows he would fire up the crowd with a pre-fight chat with Solie, strut to the ring and deliver the goods.”  Even in the largely segregated south, audiences either loved him or loved to hate him. Patterson was a trailblazer who did some of the same things the Rock would do later. Patterson was one of the few Black wrestlers touring the South in those days and had to endure racial slurs, taunts from fans and hate mail. Some nights were tougher than others, but he never backed down.

He also spoke out against poor working conditions for wrestlers and sued for racial discrimination, as a result he was blacklisted from wrestling. He had been complaining about racism from promoters for many years (he said later only Dory Funk Sr. had his back) and wanted to start a wrestlers’ union, a dream he shared with former NFL player and wrestler Jim Wilson, himself blacklisted. Career: NWA Brass Knuckles Championship (Florida version) NWA Florida Heavyweight Championship, Continental Wrestling Association-World Heavyweight Championship, George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, the Lou Thesz Award, Georgia Championship Wrestling-NWA Georgia Tag Team Championship (3 times) -NWA Georgia Television Championship (2 times) NWA National Tag Team Championship, International Championship Wrestling-United States Heavyweight Championship, Maple Leaf Wrestling-NWA United States Heavyweight Championship (Toronto version) Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, NWA Atlantic Coast Tag Team Championship, NWA Big Time Wrestling, NWA American Tag Team Championship (4 times)- NWA Tri-State-NWA Brass Knuckles Championship (Tri-State version), Western States Sports-NWA Brass Knuckles Championship (Amarillo version) (4 times)  World Wrestling Association World Tag Team Championship.

Racism Is Heavy But Sexism Is Deep

The struggles and successes of Black professional wrestlers were an intricate and maddening challenge for the men and for the women; it was all of that with a sexism cherry on top! We know that Blacks have always been over-represented in the audience of professional wrestling, [over ¼ of the audience has been Black/African American in audience surveys for many decades] and women have been between 33% and 41% of the audience since audience survey data has been available. Despite that it’s only recently that Black women and other women of color have been given real opportunities to reach the top of the profession.

Mary Horton, Ethel Johnson, Babs Wingo, Marva Scott, Kathryn Wimbley AKA Kathleen Wimberly, Louise Greene, Ramona Isbell, Etta Charles, Dinah Beamon were some among the Black women who contended for the “Colored” title. Another was Sweet Georgia Brown, born Susie Mae McCoy she was known during her wrestling days as ‘Sweet Georgia Brown,’wrestled mostly in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. She was a talented wrestler who came through the pro wrestling circuit at a time where men dominated the ranks and Blacks were treated as second class citizens. Many times, Sweet Georgia Brown had to be smuggled into arenas in trunks of cars because the Ku Klux Klan was looking for “Negroes.”

sweetgeorgiabrown

She was raped and abused by male promoters on multiple occasions, she hardly ever received fair payment for the work she did inside the ring. Her manager and booker, Mary Lillian Ellison AKA The Fabulous Moolah, collected all proceeds and divvied out payment after taking her cut. To make it worse, just as  Billy Wolfe had attempted to do to Ellison earlier in her career, it’s been said by several women that she trained, that she pressured “her girls” either into liaisons with her, her husband, Buddy Lee or with promoters. McCoy also alleged that she was given drugs, and made an addict in an intentional effort by Ellison and Lee to control her. By the end of her career, Susie Mae McCoy was left destitute and penniless. She had to work an assortment of menial  jobs to feed herself and her family. Because of the abuse she withstood during her career, She hardly ever socialized with people outside her family. Sadly, she died in 1989 from breast cancer. Only in the last few years has her story received it’s due. 

While things have certainly improved greatly, the days of Black Wrestlers being named, “Burrhead Jones” have thankfully passed, professional wrestling is still a place wherein some fairly coarse and questionable content is still prevalent. Many college, educated middle class professional wrestlers are encouraged to make it clear that their origins are “street” flashy clothes, chains, not always jewelry, at times literal chains and a certain pimpish flair is still de rigueur for men and since nearly all the women are hyper-sexualized, with Black women the tendency is to simply move it up a notch.  

Quoting the work of Nicholas Porter, “The Dark Carnival: The Construction And Performance Of Race In  American Professional Wrestling” “McMahon opted for a parade of outlandish new non-white faces who fit his new,  racier (and increasingly tasteless) business plan. The racial characters he unveiled were explicit caricatures, and became very popular on the strength of the wrestlers performing them. The Godfather (a Las Vegas pimp) and “Sexual Chocolate” Mark Henry caught on with fans, but theirs were characters almost exclusively designed in questionable taste that highlighted the WWF’s fervent quest for “edgier” material. Nonetheless, the comedic elements of both made them cult favorites with fans who, thanks to the Internet and wrestling newsletters, were aware of the contrived nature of wrestling and the calculated ridiculousness of many characters. 

The fact that both these comedy roles were blatant (and dated) racial parodies raised question marks regarding representation and positive, multi-dimensional ethnically-marked characters. On the surface, the African-American Godfather was damningly negative, perhaps almost racist in the wrestling tradition of assigning ethnic wrestlers pejorative cultural roles. The image of the pimp in popular culture was one of violent chauvinism of the worst kind, one often applied to ethnic groups in the poor inner-city, such as Puerto Ricans. Yet Charles Wright, the man behind The Godfather (and Papa Shango), invested his character with a smiling vibrancy and charm (his “Ho’s”, typically portrayed by local strippers, always seemed to be having a great time—even when Godfather would “pimp” them out to his opponents)…[B]ut the Attitude Era at least tried to lend some positivity to his character.

“Sexual Chocolate” was a different story. Seemingly designed to punish Henry for some behind-the-scenes transgression.The questionable matter of taste within pro wrestling was broached repeatedly by such intentionally vulgar creations, and yet the self-referencing (Wright and Henry always seemed to enjoy playing their gimmicks) could be read on the other hand as a deconstruction of old stereotypes, if one was willing to view the ‘Attitude Era’ as a complete break with wrestling’s outdated past. More often than not though, the actions of Henry in particular were sufficient to incite widespread disgust, thus validating the shock/trash ethos of the new WWF.”

By the mid 1960’s the influence of television, as it had with so many facets of American life, reshaped the destiny and direction of professional wrestling. This brought many new opportunities and challenges for the Black men and women who were involved with professional wrestling. That’s a story worth telling, if anyone wants to hear about it let me know.   

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