When thinking about pro wrestling pioneers, who comes to mind? Frank Gotch, Gorgerous George, Lou Thesz, Bruno Sammartino; there's a fairly sizable list that we could come up with. When it comes to black male pro wrestling pioneers,who comes to mind? Bobo Brazil, Luther Lindsay, Woody Strode, Ernie Ladd, Abdullah the Butcher, Ron Simmons; again most fans could come up with a few old-school names.
Now, what about black female pro wrestling pioneers? When I initially ran these questions through my head, I was hard-pressed to remember anyone before Sapphire when she managed Dusty Rhodes or Jacqueline, and that's only going back to 1989 for the both of them.
Obviously, they weren't the first, right?
Back in February -- for Black History Month -- the WWE posted a gallery of pictures as a tribute to the many women who have contributed to pro wrestling. They posted it up again recently, in honor of Loretta Lynch becoming the first African-American Woman to be Attorney General. Going through that gallery, I noticed nearly all of the pictures are from within that past twenty years.
Except for the last picture:
This is Marva Scott, she was a pro wrestler from the early 1950's up until the late 1970's. Aside from a few pictures, and win/loss records; my search didn't bring up a ton of information about her except this:
"The Special girls contest will pair off Marva Scott and Kathleen Wimberly against Babs Wingo and Lulu Mae Provo for two-out-of-three falls, one hour time limit match that promises plenty of action."
Now, that's a great wrestling name, and with it I was able to find a whole host of other black women wrestlers that started out in a profession during a time where both their race and gender were not always favored. Both within the wrestling world and in many towns they toured. In the 1950's a woman was not simply known as a "wrestler". They were a "lady wrestler" or "girl wrestler". In Babs or Marva's case, they were promoted as "negro lady wrestlers" or "colored girl wrestlers". Here is a typical advertisement from that time period:
The women pictured in that article is Ethel Johnson, also known as Babs' younger sister, here's a better quality photo:
She debuted around 1951 and according to a 1952 Jet article, is credited as the first black woman wrestler. Ethel herself would claim this to newspapers around the country. Together the sisters toured all over the country -- Detroit, Baltimore, Charlotte -- battling it out night after night, averaging roughly $300 a week for their work. Around this time, Ethel was considered to be one of, if not the most popular African-American Women wrestler. Here's a video of Babs and Ethel in the ring:
The two sisters had wildly different styles as described by The Southern Missouri in 1953:
The first bout of the evening will be a regulation feature-length fray between two Negro women wrestlers, Babs Wingo and Ethel Johnson. The latter is confined entirely to clean wrestling and is a strong believer that speed and science will win over a rough style girl.
She may have a chance to prove her point with Babs Wingo, who, while not a mean grappler exactly, can get wrought up to a hair-pulling frenzy in the heat of a match, it is reported. She seems to relish bumps and bruises.
It's fair to say Ethel was a face, and Babs was a heel. The two sisters were headquartered out of a Columbus, Ohio gym alongside other wrestlers:
You'll notice a "pin-up pose" style in a lot of these pictures. This was a fairly typical way to promote women in wrestling for that era. This group, along with others mentioned below, banded together to bring in the crowds. They became a popular attraction that even caught the eye of Vince McMahon, Sr. Babs and another popular wrestler -- Betty White -- wrestled in Washington D.C. (1954):
Two aggressive and popular women wrestlers will inject considerable punch into Promoter Vince McMahon’s outdoor wrestling carnival headlining a best-two-of-three-falls feature involving Antonino Rocca and Verne Gagne at Griffith Stadium next Thursday night.
Babs Wingo, 21, five-foot, three-inch, 150-pounder former hat check girl from New Orleans who now makes Columbia, S.C., her home, has been matched with Betty White, 20, former Columbus, Ohio, school girl who now resides in Atlanta, Ga., in a special one-fall, 30-minute affair.
To hear more about their experiences on the road, I was hoping to find direct quotes from one of these women. Luckily, in 2006, the Columbus Dispatch interviewed Ethel Johnson about her wrestling days. The entire interview is worth checking out, but here are some of the key quotes:.
In regards to being a women in wrestling:
"It was hard to be there, really, because everybody thought women were supposed to be at home, cooking."
During these years, New York and California banned women's wrestling:
"They were outlawed there because they felt like girls were indecent to do that. It didn’t stop people from trying, because everybody’s dream was Madison Square Garden."
On traveling to the South during segregation:
'It wasn’t an easy time. The white girls who would go down there with us, they’d go to jail for being in the same car with you. You couldn’t even be on the sidewalk. If a white person was on the sidewalk, you had to get off.'
Because of whites-only policies at hotels, Black wrestlers often had to stay in the homes of other Blacks when traveling in the South. Her peers, however, refused to be cowed by racism. They forfeited a match in Springfield, Mo., because Black patrons were refused admission.
'At first we thought it was because the house was too full, but we looked out there and saw that Blacks were being turned away. We decided that we weren’t going to work no more if they weren’t going to let them in. All those girls [other wrestlers] deserve recognition. They were the pioneers. Them being colored — I want to use the right term of the era — they really broke some real taboos. They had such courage and such get-up-and-go about them. I just really admired them.'
The courage it took for these women to work in the wrestling business is absolutely incredible. Yet, most of their effort is almost completely ignored today. The foundation of pro wrestling is its history. As the years go by, that foundation can crack and crumble away. To preserve it we must not forget to appreciate those who came before us.
Although, Babs Wingo and Ethel Johnson may not be household names today, thank you for being one of the unsung heroes in women's wrestling.
Not every name that I came across included a detailed story, but here are some other wrestlers I found while writing this article:
Lulu Mae Provo
Betty White - According to various news articles, very popular in her day.
Betty Ann Spencer
Photos are via WWE.com, ProWrasslin.Net, The Hubris of Boz, and WrestlingData.com