Joe Gans: Boxing's First Black Champion Gone but Not Forgotten

Harold BellContributor IIIJuly 30, 2010

On Sunday, Aug. 8, 2010, a group of admirers will gather in Baltimore to pay tribute to a man considered by many to be the greatest boxer of all time.

Would you be surprised if his name is not Sugar Ray Robinson or Muhammad Ali?

Joe Gans was the first black boxing champion in the history of the sport.

He was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, and Aug. 10, 2010 will mark the 100th anniversary of his death.

What many historians have forgotten is that the first professional athlete was a black man.

He came out of slavery.

During the 1700s slave owners had become fat and rich off the backs of free labor thanks to their slaves who worked from sunup to sundown.

Many of the owners became bored and had too much leisure time on their hands.

One day an owner was watching two of his slaves race each other back to their quarters after a hard day in the fields.

It was then and there the owner came up with a “Kodak Moment.”

Why not develop a competition among his slaves for entertainment?

The on-plantation competition soon spread to the other plantations.

The slaves wore the colors of their owners to distinguish one plantation from another.

There were foot races and horse racing and boxing. Many times the owners would bet heavy wages on their slaves.

Plantations were sometimes won and lost on the fleet of foot or knock out punch of a slave.

The games between the plantations won many slaves their freedom, and many were hung for losing.

The slaves were the experts when it came to the peculiar ways of the thoroughbred horses.

Boxing and thoroughbred racing were the most popular sports. 

Because of those plantation games, the first pro athletes emerged.

Those bloodlines produced names like Gans and Jack Johnson who would later take over the boxing world.

Whites dominated professional boxing in the 1800s, but Gans and Johnson would eventually deal racism a crushing blow and integrate the sport.

The Godfather of thoroughbred racing was the great Isaac Murphy.

He competed in 11 Kentucky Derbies. He was the first jockey to win three Kentucky Derbies.

There were times in the 1800s when all the jockeys were black.

Isaac Murphy is the only jockey to have won the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks, and the Clark Handicap all in the same year (1884).  This was "The Triple Crown" before the Triple Crown.

He is considered to be one of the greatest jockeys in American history.

He won 628 of his 1,412 starts, a 44 percent victory rate that has never been equaled and a record of which Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Arcaro said, "There is no chance that his record of winning will ever be surpassed.”

When the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame was established, Isaac Burns Murphy was the first jockey to be inducted.

The history and legend of Joe Gans has been lost on residents of Baltimore.

They honor hometown heroes like Babe Ruth, Billie Holiday, and Thurgood Marshall, and rightfully so, but how did Gans slip from memory?

In New York City at Madison Square Garden there is a statue of Joe Gans, a painting of him hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and there is a plaque on display in a small town in Goldfield, Nevada.

The plaque commemorates the historical fight Gans won there in 1906.

There are no such memories or historical landmarks that Joe Gans ever walked the streets or lived in Baltimore.

His boyhood home on Argyle Avenue is nonexistent, and the hotel he owned at Colvin and Lexington Streets, where the legendary jazz pianist Hubie Blake first got his start, is also gone.

The real sad part of the legend of this great man is that he has been forgotten by his own.

The Reginald Lewis Museum of Maryland, a Black Culture and African-American History home, has one photo of him on its walls!

I now understand what playground basketball legend and NBA broadcast color analyst Sonny Hill meant when he said, “Your hometown will be the last to show you any love.”

A recent quote from an unknown author sheds more light on the plight of Joe Gans and African-American legends like him: “Until the lions hire their own historians, the glory of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

Spearheading this tribute is not Don King or some other high-profile boxing personality. It is a young man by the name of Kevin Grace.

Kevin works for Southwest Airlines’ ground operations and moonlights as a historian during his off hours.

The link and common denominator of the two men—they are both black and are Baltimore natives.

Kevin is a streetwise brother in his early 40s.

He is a professional actor and a member of the screen actor's guild. In his screen debut on the award-winning show The Wire, he had a forgettable moment when he delivered his only line, "What the f--k."

He is the historian that the lions needed to hire, but the Joe Gans’ story beat them to the punch!

In 2007, Kevin stumbled upon the name of Joe Gans while reading a biography of a man I consider “The Greatest”—Jack Johnson.

He would later learn from a friend that Gans was born and raised in Baltimore, and as they say, “Curiosity can kill the cat.”

The cat in this case was Kevin Grace.

Kevin started out checking out local archives and the Enoch Pratt Library’s microfilm collection, scanning turn of the century newspapers for Gans’ name.

He found landmarks like the hotel Gans owned and his boyhood home, only to discover that they had disappeared without a trace.

He became frustrated with leads that were leading nowhere.

He contacted local fighters, politicians, and community leaders.

Kevin had big ideas like a commemorating stamp with Joe’s picture, a street named in his honor, a sculpture, and a documentary, but politics and “Player Haters” became stumbling blocks.

He made a pitch to the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, who seemed to be caught off guard by his pitch to honor Joe Gans.

But Jon Wilson, deputy director of operations for the museum, was sympathetic and was impressed with Kevin’s passion to see the project through.

Mr. Wilson said, “Whenever we do any sort of wax figure, it is done by corporate sponsorship, but this is a story we want to tell.”

Kevin’s savior was when he met actor Clayton LeBouef, who jumped on board with no strings attached.

Clayton’s credits include the award-winning series Homicide: Life on the Streets, and he is also the nephew of the radio and television pioneer Petey Greene.

He has also persuaded Showtime ringside analyst Al Berstein, former Baltimore Colts running back Lydell Mitchell, and boxing historian Bert Randolph Sugar to participate.

His hometown may have forgotten, but boxing historians like Bert Sugar have not. In his book The 100 Greatest Fighters, he has Gans rated No. 15. 

Bert says, “Joe Gans invented the left jab and he is the cleverest fighter to ever grace a boxing ring and he was known to the world as the Old Master.”

The tribute and celebration for Baltimore natives Joe Gans and Henrietta Vinton Davis will be held on Sunday, Aug. 8, 2010 at the Eubie Blake National Jazz Center located at 847 North Howard Street, Baltimore, Maryland.

For ticket information, call (410) 225-3130.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.