When the NFL protests eventually trickle off of the front page, out of the A block of newscasts and subsequently out of the mainstream public’s consciousness, race and sport will still be bedfellows. Professor Louis Moore has pushed the conversation on the hot button topic forward via his writing, social presence and teaching, with a high level of relatable intellect. The associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University dropped not one, but two books this week detailing the history of black athletes with I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880-1915, and We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete and the Quest for Equality.
We had the opportunity to speak with Professor Moore on the eve of his books being released about both projects.
Proday: What initially got you interested in writing about sports and how it intersects with sports and gender and all these topics that are so important to our society?
Moore: Growing up, I loved watching sports and I loved learning about black history, so whenever I got the opportunity, in undergrad or graduate school, to do a paper I always tried to combine the two. And that’s hard to do because a lot of straight historians don’t view the value of sport history and so part of my battle as a graduate student was to show them that we can get sports to look at history and to look at issues of race and manhood and class.
There is not a lot out there about the civil rights movement and sports, so how difficult was it to research for We Will Win the Day?
A lot of the popular stuff that we know is Jackie Robinson in the mid-40s and then the Ali era and the other black athletes in the 1960’s. I wanted to fill in that gap. I realized the best way to do that is to read the black newspapers. So, I went and got black newspapers mainly that weren’t online and I sat with the microfilm and PDF sports pages and editorials and then go back and reread them. I tried to tell the story through the narrative of the black press and then in that way you’re able to get the stories that we forget about. Houston, New Orleans, even Little League Baseball, golf, these little everyday fights that you see. And then match them with the big guys like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali.
In the book, you wrote about the big protest in Houston. Was that moment a catalyst for overall change in the city?
Houston is slowly desegregating at that time. You’re going to these football games and all of a sudden, you’re there and there’s thousands of black people outside protesting and they’re not going to the game. When there’s 50,000 people going to that game, you can’t ignore that there’s real problems with segregation.
It did have a huge impact in Southern cities. Another city that this had an impact in was Atlanta. One of the reasons why Atlanta integrated a little quicker than other Southern cities is because it wants to be a major city and it realizes that to be a major city it has to have professional sports, but it can’t have professional sports if it’s a segregated city. They chose to desegregate and eventually they get the Braves and then eventually they get the Falcons. And we’ll see this with New Orleans, when they try to get the Saints, they and the governor promised that the city would desegregate if they got the Saints, so sports does have its place when we talk about the South and racism.
I Fight for a Living goes back well over a hundred years; how did you find out so much about these boxer’s lives?
Technology has been a blessing on that one! There are a lot more hard-to-find papers that are on database, on PDF and you can key search some people. The other thing that I had to do was sit down and go through whole newspapers.
We all know Jack Johnson, but you detail several other notable black boxers from that period as well.
Every chapter has something about someone who most people have never heard of. Just to show how normal Jack Johnson was, one of the fighters that I found fascinating was Bobby Dobbs. Dobbs was born in the South but starts fighting in the late 1880’s, early 1890’s, you see him a little bit in the Utah area, in San Francisco, in Minnesota in the 1890’s, and he’s in Pittsburgh. Eventually he goes to England for a few years and he comes back with a lot of money. He comes back and tells other black fighters, “you need to go here, this is where the money’s at.”
How were these guys investing their money back then?
The most common business, honestly, was the sports bar. Hank Griffin owned a black hotel in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Joe Gants owned a hotel that he called the Gold Field which is in Baltimore. Jack Johnson spent tens of thousands of dollars on property, Sam Langford bought a lot of property and raised cows and chickens and stuff like that. And they openly talk about these investments and they’re doing this because they are trying to tell the press and mainly to the white press that look, ‘we’re not this animal type, child-like person you’re trying to portray us as, you know we’re family men, we’re men and you’re going to treat as such.’
You also had several black people who owned gymnasiums and hosted fights. At one time in Los Angeles, there were three black owned gymnasiums hosting fights, which is really rare.
Essentially, they were like the first black promoters.
Right. So, the first real promoter I found is this guy named Thomas Jefferson, not the president, but a black guy named Thomas Jefferson who’s in St. Paul, Minnesota in the mid-1880’s. He recruits a lot of top black fighters in the nation to Minnesota. So, from about 1884-1887, most of the top black heavyweights move to Minnesota and it’s because this guy, this black promoter brings them there. And they do travel around other cities putting on shows.
Boxing and manhood and masculinity – does that tie in today?
Race and manhood are essential to understanding boxing. We’re a nation that’s built on this idea of white superiority and the ring really counters that. White people always assume that we can beat these black guys because we’re white and it rarely happens like that, and that explains the nation’s fascination with this Mayweather-McGregor fight. It’s this idea that we’re so invested in white masculinity that we would believe that this guy who has never boxed would have any chance. And we believe that because he is very brash and very bold and Mayweather’s black and he’s really brash and he talks trash and we would like this white guy to knock him out. As a nation, I think this is why this fight gets made. On paper, it doesn’t make sense but when you look at, the intersections of race and manhood you understand why it’s there.
Professor Moore’s books can be purchased here.