Hustle Is Posting Right Now - Creating Black History
Feb 15, 2013 - 7:47:38 AM
Writer's Note: This column contains some sensitive racial remarks, as well as subject matter, so be warned if you're offended by things such as the "N-Word", the subject of slavery, or anything else along those lines. The usage of these words and topics goes along with the overall column itself, and isn't just in there for shock value, comedy, or whatever other reason they'd be included in a column. I just wanted to throw it out there beforehand, to try and ease things a tiny bit if people do happen to get offended. If you are offended, I do apologize, and just know that it wasn't my intention to go out and offend people. Again, be warned.
Writer's Note Part Deux: Because of some controversy that came up when I originally posted this column a few years back, I just want to clarify something right here and now.. this is a fictional column. A lot of the names and the stories in this are completely made up. It's just a creative writing piece that I wanted to try out, and I think it stands the test of time.
Professional wrestling has been referred to as a "male soap opera".
It's a place where many people can go to get away from their problems in everyday life, and just try to have a little bit of fun. Those people aren't always fans, as the performers themselves can use the sport as a vehicle to escape reality, even for a few short moments. Not every performer has been that lucky, however. Some are unable to escape their "real-life" problems, but continue stepping through the curtains on a nightly basis, anyway.
Robert McGee is one of those people. Better known by his wrestling name, "Sweet" Bobby McGee, he was one of the very first African-American wrestlers to ply his craft in the United States. Born in North Carolina in 1927 to parents who were poor and barely literate, McGee began fighting at a young age.
"Because I was always tall and well-built for my age, the other kids in my town would look at it as some sort of badge of honor to be the one to take me down in a fight. I would always go up against other kids my age in bareknuckle boxing matches, but that eventually became bareknuckle boxing matches against guys much older than I was, as well." McGee says.
Standing at 6 feet 4 inches tall, and weighing between 210 and 220 pounds, McGee was an impressive physical specimen, and thanks to helping his father on the farm, had put serious musculature on his frame from an early age. Most of the boxing matches he participated in were over just as soon as they started, and on more than one occasion, were won with a single punch. While he won his fights in impressive fashion, and in turn made other people a nice amount of money because they were gambling on the fights, both on their own and through local bookies, he never saw a dime of that money for himself.
"I was out there fighting people whenever and wherever other people wanted me to, without any of the training and preparation that the proper professional fighters were doing, and I was doing it for free. I didn't see any of the money that I won for other people. My parents didn't see any of the money. My family tree is full of people who lived their whole lives as nothing more than slaves, and here I was, in no better a situation than any of them." McGee says, his voice rising above its usual soothing tone to reveal years of pent-up anger and frustration on the subject.
William Johnson was one of the first people to watch McGee fight, and he saw something special in him from the very start. He went out of his way to attend several of McGee's fights, becoming more and more impressed each time. He saw a raw young teenager who fought with style and had his own flair that he brought to a fight, and the best part about it was that he crafted it himself.
"I used to hear my father talking about Bobby McGee all the time" says Nick Johnson, William's oldest son. "He'd be telling his friends, or even my mother, about this young African-American teenager who was bareknuckle boxing all comers, and then beating them so badly that he made some of his grown adult opponents cry like little children."
William Johnson owned and operated a small wrestling promotion that worked in the Carolinas, and one night, he was sitting at the dinner table when an idea hit him.. he would attend Bobby McGee's next fight, and would see if McGee would like to start training to become a professional wrestler. It was an idea that was sure to stir up its fair share of negative emotions in a time and place where racial tension was unbelievably strong. The United States were in the middle of World War 2 at the time, and in the southern states, the friction between whites and blacks was at an uncomfortable high. Before Johnson could get to McGee, though, he needed to get to McGee's parents.
Harvey and Hattie Mae McGee both understood racial tension very well, as their parents were all slaves in the Carolinas. They had been witness to countless events that would shock even the most schooled racial historian. Now, they were facing a new situation, with a strange white man in their home, trying to convince them to allow their son to sign a contract with them so that he could become a pro wrestler.
"It was a tough spot for my father to be in, because he had no bad intentions, but for those who didn't know any better, it may not have come across that way." Nick said.
"My mama thought this man was sitting in her living room, trying to buy her son from right out underneath her. My parents were both farm workers, and they grew up having to work, not allowing themselves the opportunity for proper education. They didn't have a clue about things like contracts and all that. Mr Johnson may very well have been speaking Chinese to them, 'cause they would've understood him all the same." McGee remembers.
Eventually, William Johnson was able to get both Harvey and Hattie Mae to sign the contract, giving their son permission to begin his training. Johnson added to the contract after they signed it, putting in promises to pick up and drop off Bobby, as his parents didn't drive. He wasn't able to pay the family much, but he did provide them with what equaled to a "signing bonus" of sorts, providing them with fresh beef and chicken on a weekly basis, straight from his own father's butcher shop.
"I don't think either one of my parents really knew what they were getting themselves into, but money was tough back then, so to be getting an extra paycheck, as well as the beef and the chicken, was enough for them to sign on the dotted line. I had heard people talking about wrestling before, but I didn't really understand what it was and just how different it was from the type of fighting I was used to." McGee says.
On the eve of McGee's first training session with Johnson's Carolina Wrestling Alliance, Johnson held a meeting with the rest of the people involved with the company, from the other wrestlers to the referees to the people who set the ring up before each show. He felt they should all know that an African-American would be working with them from now on. The conversation had never come up before, so he had no idea if anybody would be against the idea, and if so, how much of a problem there might possibly be.
"He actually asked us if any of us were members of the KKK, or if we'd have problems working with a black teenager. He told us about the kid's fighting skills, and his ideas for what he thought the kid could bring to our company. There were a handful of the guys who immediately refused to work with this kid. For one reason or another, they simply wanted nothing to do with having to share a locker room with a black man. That was their problem to deal with. Me? I had no issue with it. If he came in here and was serious about being a wrestler, I wouldn't have cared if William Johnson had hired a giraffe to work with us." says Charlie Haggard, who wrestled under the moniker of "The Masked Mississippian".
For the wrestlers that were opposed to working with McGee, Johnson pulled them to the side to try and convince them that it wouldn't be as bad as they were thinking. When all else failed, Johnson just made sure so that those wrestlers wouldn't have to actually get into the ring with McGee, but would allow him to join the wrestling fraternity. The next morning, Johnson and McGee arrived at the Armory in Parkton, North Carolina to begin McGee's training.
"I truly and honestly didn't know what to expect when I stepped into that building. Obviously, I was used to being discriminated against because of the color of my skin, but these were guys who now had to work with me. I wasn't just some random nigger that they would see at the store. I didn't know if they would be threatened by that idea." McGee says.
"You ever seen movies where there's a bar or something where a jukebox is playing, and when someone walks into the place, the music just stops immediately and everyone's eyes are focused on the door? That's almost how it was when Bobby McGee walked into the Armory that morning. It was a surreal thing to be involved with. Here was this black kid, not even 18 years old at the time, and as scared as the day is long, standing in the doorway while a couple dozen white men in their 20s, 30s, and 40s just stared at him. The fact that he didn't turn around and run home screaming at that moment is a solid indication of the type of character Bobby has deep down inside." recalls Haggard.
Over the next few days, every morning would be the same thing, with Johnson and McGee arriving at the Armory together, and everyone expecting the teen to wish he was anywhere but the Armory and just leave. He stuck around, though, and he trained. He trained, and he started picking up on things rather quickly. He already had quite the nice mix of height, weight, athleticism, and strength, which placed him ahead of several men who had been working for the CWA for years at that point. Eager to fit in, McGee was a hungry learner, wanting to pick up as much of the craft as he could in an effort to show his peers that he was just like them.
"Bobby was truly gifted. He had a physique that a lot of guys would've killed for, and although he didn't ask a lot of questions, it was obvious that he was running through things in his head whenever you'd teach him something." Haggard says.
Parkton was an incredibly small town, and wrestling was big all throughout the area, so word that a black man was training to become a wrestler had traveled quickly, both in Parkton, as well as in other towns nearby.
"One day, the KKK paid my father a visit while we were sitting at the dinner table. A few Klansmen wanted to talk to him about getting this black man out of wrestling. My father agreed to talk to them in the next room, trying to avoid letting the rest of the family hear the conversation, but we could still hear the Klansmen throwing around numerous racial slurs and making veiled threats of violence towards Bobby and his family if my father continued to let him wrestle. After they were finished, my father thanked them for their time, and he showed them to the door." Nick Johnson revealed.
McGee's first match as a pro wrestler took place in September of 1945. Nearly the entire town of Parkton was in attendance that evening. Some were there to cheer McGee, and some were there to boo him, but they were mostly there to see what type of sideshow the event would turn into. One special person wasn't in attendance, however.
"My mama had gotten ill a few days before my first match, and she didn't have much time left. I told her that I would quit my training so that I could be by her side and get her back to full health again, but she wanted no part of that idea. She knew I had been working hard, and she didn't want me to throw that away over something I couldn't help. Then, on the morning of my first match, my mama passed away at the age of 51 years old. I was devastated." McGee says.
McGee knew he still needed to wrestle that night, even with his mother's passing earlier in the day. It was going to be a very stressful time, anyway, so he figured that he might as well go on with it. Upon his arrival at the Armory late that afternoon, he was greeted by a few of the other wrestlers in the CWA who offered condolences to him and the rest of his family. It was one of the first truly nice things any of the fellow wrestlers did for him during the entire time he was training with them. Before he knew it, however, it was time for his big match.
"I heard it all on my way to the ring that night. Someone had called me a nigger. I was called a coon. I had people tell me that I should leave now, or I'd pay for it after the show. I saw people who were known members of the Klan. While it was a lot to deal with, the unfortunate thing is that it was nothing I wasn't expecting. Hell, it was nothing I hadn't already dealt with in my time on earth at that point. As a black man in the south back in those days, people would try to break your spirit every single day. I've seen a lot of people crumble under that kind of pressure." says McGee.
He wrestled a quick match, going up against another relative newcomer to the business, but McGee picked up the victory, which did nothing to change the crowd's response. Those who were there to cheer him went ahead and cheered him. Those who were there to boo him went ahead and booed him. Those who were there to witness the sideshow were witnessing the sideshow. When he was dropped off at home after the show, however, McGee found a noose on his front porch. There was no note to accompany the noose, but the message was crystal clear.
"I couldn't let stupid things like that get to me. If you let the little things bother you, what chance do you have when actual problems take place in your life?" McGee said, his voice full of pride and defiance.
Over the next several weeks, McGee continued to wrestle, and he continued to receive various threats towards his physical well-being and even his life. Johnson was concerned for his young employee, but knew he couldn't stop the kid if he wanted to continue doing what he was doing.
"The Klan didn't stop on their mission. They continued speaking with my father about getting Bobby McGee out of wrestling. It was different, though, because they usually followed through on their threats, and they'd act out if they didn't get their way, but not this time. They continued threatening McGee, his friends, and his family, but it seemed like idle threats. They didn't do anything about McGee. They talked and talked, while he wrestled and wrestled. Who knows? Maybe they were secretly fans of the guy?" Nick Johnson wonders.
Although he never went on to achieve world-wide fame, McGee's story is still an incredibly successful one. Against some of the strongest odds that one could face at the time, he accomplished things nobody could've expected from him. In early 1945, McGee injured his leg, but continued wrestling. When his father fell ill a few short months later, McGee had no choice but to cut back on his wrestling so that he could tend to the family farm and help his father out. Eventually, he gave up on wrestling altogether, although he would make special appearances when Johnson really needed him to. He was only a pro wrestler for a very short time, but it was one of the more eventful careers in wrestling, especially at that time. The current World Wrestling Entertainment United States Champion, Shelton Benjamin, grew up in Orangeburg, South Carolina and he remembers the impact that Bobby McGee had on people in the Carolinas.
"When people think about pro wrestling in North Carolina, South Carolina, and the surrounding areas, they'll definitely think of names like Ric Flair, Wahoo McDaniel, Ricky Steamboat, and Johnny Valentine. Below that level, though, the name Bobby McGee runs deep in the Carolinas. Without Bobby McGee, there might not be a lot of African-Americans in the world of pro wrestling, myself included. He really was a trail blazer, and he's worthy of any accolade he's ever received." Benjamin said.
"If people gain anything from my story, I want it to be hope. I want it to be determination. If they set their mind to something, they shouldn't let the bad intentions of other people stop them. Time and time again, you're going to face adversity in your life, but you have to find the inner strength to overcome that adversity. I'm not trying to preach, but you young people can't let other folks get in the way of your hopes and dreams." McGee tells us.
Professional wrestling has been referred to as a "male soap opera". Every soap opera has someone to root for. In this type of soap opera, "Sweet" Bobby McGee is one of those people.
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