“She was really a powerhouse (…) They called her a hurricane,” said Chris Bournea, journalist and film producer of Lady Wrestler: The Amazing, Untold Story of African-American Women in the Ring.
In 2018, Ethel Johnson, one of the first African American female wrestlers, passed away at 83 years old. She started her training in the 1950s and quickly became “the biggest attraction to hit girl wrestling since girl wrestling began” (JET Magazine, 1952). Her extraordinary carrier transcended race and she put Black women in the ring.
Originally from Georgia, Ethel Blanche Wingo was born in 1935 and was only 18 years old and more than 110 pounds heavy when she set off to be a wrestler.
“Ethel’s so small compared to some of her opponents that she’s got to be fast to keep from getting squashed,” (Genzlinger, 2019).
Nevertheless, her naturally athletic build allowed her to become one of the first African American professional women wrestlers after only two years of training. Her signature attack was the standing drop kick and a version of the flying head scissors which she was amongst the first to use during matches.
Johnson rose to success shortly after her sister Babs Wingo signed with the promoter Billy Wolfe. Johnson and her two sisters, Wingo and Marva Scott, took part in a groundbreaking event: They set an all-time record for wrestling in Baltimore in 1952 with more than 3,000 fans watching. By 1954, nearly twice as many people gathered at the Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City to see the trio Johnson, Wingo and Gorgeous George. They quickly ranked top of their category. Johnson also faced white women wrestlers including legends such as June Byers and Penny Banner along with Mildred Burke for her National Wrestling Alliance World Women´s Championship. She worked for the NWA for most of her career but in the last years she was an active member of Verne Gagne´s American Wrestling Association until her retirement in 1976 at the age of 41.
Despite the Jim Crow laws (enforcing racial segregation) the famed trio were amongst the best paid black Americans at the time with about $10,000 annually according to Jet Magazine. Yet this remains a forgotten fact of American history. Johnson and her fellow wrestling sisters also endured racism similar to what jazz musicians and actors experienced – especially when they traveled to Southern states. There, they’d have to hide in the trunk if they were in a car with a white person.
“They just have a story that transcends race,” said Chris Bournea producer of Lady Wrestler: The Amazing, Untold Story of African-American Women in the Ring.
Nevertheless, media coverage in professional wrestling magazines capitalized on black women wresters´ glamour making them appear athletic and desirable. Her petite stature did not prevent her from being billed “The Negro Venus of lady wrestling” (Genzlinger, 2019).
In 2006, Johnson said it was every woman wrestler´s dream to perform at Madison Square Garden in New York but women´s wrestling was banned in that city during her prime.
Johnson died of heart disease on September 14, 2018 in Ohio at 83 years old and will be missed for her strength and positive energy.
If you want to know more, check out Bournea´s website: https://www.chrisbournea.com/
Written by Claire Davis, WAVE Intern
Erdman, Corey. “The Forgotten Story of the First Black Female Wrestlers.” Vice, 23 Mar. 2018, www.vice.com/en_us/article/d3588k/the-forgotten-story-of-the-first-black-female-wrestlers.
Genzlinger, Neil. “Ethel Johnson, Early Black Wrestling Star, Is Dead at 83.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Nov. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/11/25/sports/ethel-johnson-dead.html?fbclid=IwAR18MJzNNwK47me5UHOhogBBIFlAnOS7I0Eg3xlLM99Uv8LSFn0Swbuykgc.
Greer, Jamie, and Wwf. “The Pioneers: Ethel Johnson: The First African-American Female Wrestler (VIDEO).” Last Word on Pro Wrestling, 27 Nov. 2019, lastwordonprowrestling.com/2018/02/01/ethel-johnson-first-african-american-female-wrestler/.
Jamaibaw. “Inside Her Story: The Story Of Black Female Wrestlers In The 1950s, 60s And 70s.” Black America Web, Black America Web, 15 Oct. 2019, blackamericaweb.com/2019/10/15/inside-her-story-the-story-of-black-female-wrestlers-in-the-1950s-60s-and-70s/?fbclid=IwAR3yg_vbx0Y3aFPlo2ommB9nyWTULo5aiTh_-TTUIfY7nbgE-Cr_g4FxOoM.