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Breaking Down Barriers: Professional Wrestlers and the Desegregation of The Sport

In the 1940s – 1960s most regional professional wrestling promotions were segregated, featuring Negro World Championships. In many cases, this segregation included having separate divisions with White wrestlers not competing against Black wrestlers and superficial stereotypes applied to Black talent. Coupled with the Jim Crow laws of the South, segregation in professional wrestling was all-encompassing. Several influential players were willing to stake their careers, lives, and well-being to desegregate the industry.


Twisted Steel & Sex Appeal


When going through the myriad of books about civil rights and the segregation of entertainment in the South you would expect to see mentions of the student organizations who protested the segregation of public movie theaters or Ray Charles cancelling a show in Augusta’s segregated Bell Auditorium. It may not come as a surprise even to see The Beatles or Hugh Hefner on the list of those that actively went against the set laws of segregation in the region. One name, however, that is respected and is mentioned readily for their contributions to the desegregation of entertainment venues in the South that may come as a surprise is Sputnik Monroe. Why? Even though his name was as well known as Elvis in Memphis, TN he wasn’t a famous musician or actor. He was a professional wrestler. One beloved by the Black Memphis community.


Concert Flyers for "Colored" Audience (left) and White Audience (right)

In the days of segregation, seats were reserved for “white” audience members and “black” audience members with Blacks being relegated to the, often limited, upper balcony seats. The Sportatorium in Dallas had its crowds segregated, “One section would be for blacks, and one section would be for whites. It rotated around the building” (Pringle, ND). For many of the cities in the South, how strictly they applied the Jim Crow laws were dependent on the political officials in power at the time. This impacted how entertainment venues were managed.


Professional Wrestling had a strong base in the South with local stages transforming into wrestling venues across the region every weekend. Each promotion’s draw in the region was dependent on the local popularity of the talent that they had, both their hero and their heel. Sputnik Monroe was one of the most popular heels the South had seen to date.


Sputnik Monore

Roscoe Brumbaugh, better known as Sputnik Monroe to the professional wrestling community, found his start in the traveling carnivals after concerns that he was too “dangerous” of a competitor for traditional wrestling. He spent several years traveling the Midwest and West wrestling at carnivals before joining a small circuit of wrestling promotions. He found himself in Memphis in 1958 and was an immediate hit with his boyish charm, strong physique, and good looks.


His experience traveling with the carnivals and interactions with the Black community gave Sputnik a different view compared to some of his counterparts. Both regarding wrestling Black talent and supporting Black fans. Most notably, his advocation extended beyond the world of professional wrestling and famously landed him in court where he hired a Black lawyer, much to the anger of the community.


There is an assortment of stories related to Sputnik supporting the Black community but, ultimately, the result was an increase of ticket sales to Black patrons and the desegregation of the entertainment venues in his area. He is NOT, by any means, the only champion that assisted in the desegregation of entertainment venues and wrestling shows, but he played a significant part in Memphis and, in turn, across the Southern region.


Triple Trouble – Babs Wingo, Marva Scott & Ethel Johnson


Segregation in the south and professional wrestling was bad enough. But, until the early 1900s, women weren’t allowed to compete in boxing or professional wrestling. When women like Mildred Burke did step onto the wrestling scene, there was an obvious lack of Black women talent. Burke’s ex-husband, Billy Wolfe, was a prominent wrestling promoter affiliated with NWA who drew strong inspiration from the Jackie Robinson story. Having already found great success in pushing women in wrestling, he was determined to lay out a path for Black women to desegregate the women’s professional wrestling industry.


Unsung wrestling pioneers, sisters Babs Wingo, Marva Scott, and Ethel Johnson.

Three sisters, Babs Wingo, Marva Scott and Ethel Johnson would be the women to do so. Raised in Columbus, Ohio, the three sisters trained in Judo and gymnastics at their local YMCA. With Wolfe’s involvement in the athletic scene of Ohio, it didn’t take him long to discover the teenage girls. They trained with some of the greatest women in the industry before making their respective debuts. Babs Wingo would eventually become the first interracial women’s champion after defeating Mildred Burke in 1953. Alongside her sister, Marva Scott, she would also become the first Negro Women’s tag champions. Ethel the ”beautiful, high-flying, fast-paced” sister was the first prominent African American woman used in publicity photos.


Ethel Johnson dawning her pin-up-styled wrestling gear. [Photo: @chrisbourneawriter on Facebook]


The sisters broke down many barriers for Black Women in professional wrestling and stood in solidarity with their Black fans during the height of Jim Crow Laws. They were known for turning down bookings and once left a show that was refusing Black fans at the door. The stress of the industry and the impact of the Jim Crow laws was so severe it caused Marva to have a mental breakdown, resulting in a stay at a sanitarium. Her interest and involvement in professional wrestling was not the same after.


They all went on to be inducted into the inaugural Women’s Wrestling Hall of Fame with Ethel also being inducted in the WWE’s Hall of Fame Legacy Wing.


Bearcat Wright


Another wrestler, Bearcat Wright, staked his young career on his strong stance against the segregation that existed. Once the World Negro Champion, Bearcat participated in Black only matches throughout his early career. Once he became frustrated with the dynamics of match bookings, he declared at a show in Gary, Indiana that he wouldn’t wrestle in Blacks only matches anymore resulting in him being banned by the state commission.



Two things should be noted. During this time period (1960s), many White wrestlers also refused to wrestle Black wrestlers and Bearcat Wright wasn’t yet known to be the best. Technically sound and athletic, but not the best. He was, however, a huge draw with his strength, charisma and ability to look good with a more talented opponent.  Due to his large draw in other areas, he was able to get bookings at other territories in desegregated matches. Seeing the overall draw the Black heels had, many promoters stopped segregating their matches. This saw other Black wrestlers of the time appear outside of their home territories in locations that had been desegregated. Most notably names like Thunderbolt Patterson and Abdullah the Butcher.


Bearcat Wright went on to have an interesting career before ultimately being posthumously inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2017.


There are many other individuals in the professional wrestling industry across the country that have made significant contributions to Civil Rights and desegregation in professional sports. I challenge you to learn more about them.


Resources

Read more about these incredible figures here:


"Real King of Memphis; Sputnik Monroe wrestled with civil rights issues in South." Washington Times [Washington, DC], 20 June 2002, p. C01. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A87514402/OVIC?u=txshracd2597&sid=summon&xid=bf8173e9. Accessed 5 Feb. 2024.


Williams, Juan. My Soul Looks Back in Wonder : Voices of the Civil Rights Experience. New York: AARP/Sterling, 2004. Print.


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