Faculty Scholarly Dissemination Grants

Title

Race Man or Race Menace?: George Dixon and the Meaning of Black Athletic Success

Department

History Department

College

College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Disciplines

Arts and Humanities

Abstract

Although he never weighed more than 120 pounds, George Dixon was the greatest fighter of his generation. In 1890 he defeated Englands Bantamweight Champion Nunc Wallace (105 pounds,) to become the first black champion. After Dixon beat Wallace, a writer for the Cleveland Gazette [black newspaper] quipped, Will someone tell us what this country is coming to? Young Afro-Americans are winning prizes at colleges, riding winning horses in leading races and winning worlds championships in the pugilistic arena. There are other avenues in which we have excelled in the past year. Isnt all this an indication of progress? As the quote suggests, the black press used black athletic success to prove racial advancement. Even Dixon understood the important role his championship status played in the black community. He once told a group of Bostons black leaders, I have never yet entered the ring but that I was conscious that I was not only fighting the battle for myself alone but also for the race. I felt that if I won, not only credit would be given me, but that my race would also rise in the estimation of the public. The black press continued to celebrate Dixon throughout the decade, but by 1902 they were done with Dixon. One paper asked its readers, How many young men in the heyday of prosperity will be warned by the improvidence of George Dixon to save up a few pennies for the rainy day that is sure to come?What happened to George Dixon? How could a race man, so quickly become a race menace? Examining how the black middle class reacted to rise and fall of George Dixon, my presentation will discuss the meaning of the black fighter at the turn of the century. More than proving physical equality, the black prizefighter represented black competence, work ethic, an ability to overcome racism, and he demonstrated that blacks would succeed in the labor market if given an equal chance to compete. As one black writer argued, the pugilistic business is, however, indicative of something. It shows whenever a Negro is given a chance, to use the language of the street, he is sure, to get there. However, using boxers to prove black equality was a huge gamble, because the sporting cultures construction of manliness diverged from the black middle classes. White writers, however, viewed the financial downfall of black fighters like Dixon, who squandered $250,000, through a racial lens and believed blacks had an innate pathology towards economic failure. Understanding this attack from the lens of the black middle class, whites indictment on a black fighters inability to demonstrate manly responsibility became a condemnation of black manhood. Thus, race men publically shunned the pugilists cultural habits and instead situated fighters like Dixon as failed figures that did not represent the racial manhood.

Conference Name

North American Society for Sports History

Conference Location

Miami, Florida

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