The Forgotten Story of the First Black Female Wrestlers
In briefly choosing to honor the disgraced Fabulous Moolah at WrestleMania, WWE overlooked three African-American sisters and their friend who were actual pioneers in women's wrestling.
Photo with permission of Chris Bournea
On the March 12 episode of Monday Night RAW, WWE announced it would name the inaugural women’s battle royal at WrestleMania after The Fabulous Moolah. It promptly blew up in the company's face.
The tale WWE told was that Moolah was an empowering figure and a true revolutionary in the world of sports entertainment. In reality, she was a regressive force who, through means ranging from devious to outright despicable, held back women’s progress in the industry for decades. After Moolah's 2007 death, female wrestlers like Mad Maxine and others began to talk about how they were exploited by Moolah—sometimes sexually—and how she abused female wrestlers under her power for years. Once journalists and Twitter users alike reminded the company of this, WWE made the decision to pull her name from the event.
That it took a full week of Twitter roasting and negative national coverage for the organization to pull the plug illustrates not only its lack of social conscience but also a wider industry ignorance about the history of women’s wrestling and those truly worthy of honor.
There are any number of other female wrestlers who would have been more appropriate to name the battle royal after, but none are more overdue for praise than four women who changed the pro-wrestling and sporting landscape forever: Ethel Johnson, Babs Wingo, Kathleen Wimbley, and Marva Scott, the first black women’s professional wrestlers.
Like many other industries across the country, women’s wrestling in the United States experienced a boom during World War II. With many of the men off at war, opportunities for women on the home front opened up—including in the wrestling ring, where Mildred Burke became one of the most popular athletes or performers in any genre at the time. As documented in Jeff Leen’s biography The Queen of the Ring, Burke, along with then-husband Billy Wolfe, effectively controlled all of women’s wrestling, acting as the trainer and booker respectively for female talent, providing them to various promoters and territories around the country.
Burke was a megastar, an undefeated champion who wore diamonds and furs and talked openly about her $50,000 annual income—a real figure, which became a part of her character as well. As Frank DeFord wrote in 1990, Burke was “bigger in her sport than anyone ever was in theirs.”
Women's wrestling was still riding high in the early 1950s and women across the country saw Burke, and no doubt her income, and wanted to follow suit—including a trio of sisters living in Columbus, Ohio. Babs Wingo was the first of the three to start training as a professional wrestler, followed by Ethel Johnson. Johnson reveals in the upcoming documentary Lady Wrestler, directed by Chris Bournea, that the two would take judo and gymnastics classes at the Columbus YMCA on top of their pro wrestling training and strength training.
Though record keeping of professional wrestling at that time isn’t entirely comprehensive, it’s known that Johnson debuted at the age of 16, with Wingo and their friend Kathleen Wimbley following sometime shortly after, around 1951. Younger sister Marva Scott’s first reported match came in 1954.
The four women were pitted against one another quite often in the main event of shows across the United States, with Johnson usually coming out on top in either singles matches or tag-team matches. This was occurring during a time period sandwiched between Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier a few years before and Rosa Parks being arrested in Montgomery a few years later. Race and gender relations had not progressed particularly far at this point, yet a group of black women were the featured attractions on events and breaking attendance records across the country.
As young performers in 1952, Johnson, Wingo, and Wimbley took part in a main event tag team match and set an all-time gate record for wrestling in Baltimore with 3,611 fans. By 1954, they were drawing 9,000 fans at the Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, and Johnson and Wingo received top billing alongside Gorgeous George, one of the most famous wrestlers of all time. Both Johnson and Wingo would challenge Burke for the NWA women’s title once, while Scott was rated as high as No. 3 in the world by Ring Magazine in 1968—as compared to then-NWA champion Moolah who was ranked No. 14 in the same December issue.
“Wingo and Johnson, rated nationally at the top of their category, are capable of staging a match hard to beat from a standpoint of speed and rough action. They can show the menfolks some tricks in the trade when it comes to rapid, rugged wrestling fireworks,” wrote one reporter on April 10 of 1955 in the Pampa Daily News. Even on a card featuring Hall of Famer Dory Funk Sr., the focus remained on the ring brilliance of the women.
As a result of their drawing power and ring prowess, the women were paid extraordinarily well for the time period. During their peak, Johnson, Wingo, Wimbley, and Scott would have been among the highest paid black athletes in the United States. Wimbley in particular was reported in Jet magazine as having made $10,000 annually, and the women estimated in Lady Wrestler that they made as much as $300 per week. To put that into perspective, the median household income in 1950 was $3,300. Naturally, the women hung around the other big earners of the day, people like Joe Louis and members of the Harlem Globetrotters.
With the bulk of their careers occurring while Jim Crow laws were still in effect, the unique nature of the sisters’ success and prosperity during this era cannot be overstated, yet it remains a forgotten piece of American history. The women endured the endorsed racism of the time—In Lady Wrestler, Johnson recalled how trips to the Southern states sometimes required hiding in the trunk if they were in the car with a white person—and yet they were still huge draws.
That's in part due to their portrayal within the industry, which is fascinating considering the era and media landscape. Boxing—which shared the same sports pages and quite often magazine publications with wrestling (The Ring magazine featured wrestling, and Boxing and Wrestling was a popular rag)—was still struggling with ugly portrayals of black fighters at the time. But in pro wrestling, where characterization is a part of the performance, and one might have expected hideous minstrel show-type portrayals, the black women were simply lauded as extraordinary athletes and as attractive, desirable women.
It’s sad to say, but had the women attempted to break into the business in the WWF 20 years later, in the 70s or 80s, their fates would have been entirely different. The organization had no black female wrestlers during the Rock ’n’ Wrestling era, and none on a regular basis until Sapphire debuted in 1989 in a mostly managerial role. A black woman wouldn’t win a championship until Jacqueline did it in 1998. Black men at the time were portrayed as everything from savages with very hard heads and no communication skills, to pimps, to a white guy claiming to be from “Deepest Darkest Africa,” to de facto slaves.
Johnson, Wingo, Wimbley, and Scott were all well ahead of their time in terms of their in-ring abilities. Save for some quirks of the era, the footage that exists of them looks like it could have been a match from the 80s or early 90s in the United States. Johnson was particularly agile in the ring, throwing dropkicks, a version of a flying headscissors and a move newspapers at the time marveled at, the atomic drop. Many of the women’s wrestlers at the time made kip ups (vaulting from one’s back straight to one’s feet in one motion) a part of their routine—a maneuver Shawn Michaels would use to great fanfare to set up his finishing move in the mid 90s.
As these four women faded from the spotlight, however, the women’s wrestling industry regressed. It began with Burke and Wolfe’s divorce and the severing of their company in 1954, forcing women to effectively choose sides. It continued with the rise of Moolah, who would form a similar setup to Burke and Wolfe’s with her own husband Buddy Lee, training and booking women’s wrestlers around the country. This was also around the time Vince McMahon Sr. began to dominate pro wrestling in the Northeast.
While the foursome were skilled athletes and technically sound, Moolah was not. She wasn't that talented in the ring, so when she took to training many of the sport’s newcomers, not only could she not teach them how to do anything extraordinary, but she actively discouraged them from learning those moves, ostensibly so she wouldn’t be upstaged. She instead ushered in a new style that might be described as “catfighting,” heavy on hair-pulling and slapping—an insulting portrayal of how women, and in particular strong athletic women, would fight. It’s precisely the style that would remain prevalent in the United States, save for a few standout performers, until very recently. Similar to the students trained directly by Moolah, it’s not like the women wouldn’t have been capable of doing more in the ring—they most certainly were—but they were taught Moolah's style and brought up in an organization that deified it.
In some ways, it’s taken almost 70 years to get back to the quality of women’s wrestling the black female pioneers established back in 1952. The quality of women’s wrestling in America is the best it’s ever been, and it’s no longer unusual to see women main-eventing a weekly television program or even a pay-per-view. Two black performers—Sasha Banks and Naomi—are among the most prominent and popular women’s wrestlers of the day. Neither have characters rooted in ugly stereotypes—Banks is a flashy babyface in shutter shades, while Naomi is an EDM dancer who likes glowing items—they’re presented as good wrestlers. Naming an event after Moolah in 2018 celebrates the very atavism Banks, Naomi, and this generation of female wrestlers has vanquished from the women’s wrestling industry.
Pro wrestling moved backwards for decades, leaving its black female pioneers in the dust. But even as it's raced forward, it has yet again left them behind.
Every woman's dream, Johnson said in 2006, was to wrestle in Madison Square Garden. But because women’s wrestling was banned in New York during their prime, and they came one era before Jess McMahon and Toots Mondt’s World Wide Wrestling Federation ran the Garden regularly, they never got a chance to achieve that goal. The only mention of any of them by the WWE seems to be a lone appearance by Scott in a photo gallery of women’s wrestlers on the company website several years ago.
They deserve much more. Like, maybe a battle royal named after them at WrestleMania or something.
*Additional research provided by Jeff Leer, author of The Queen of the Ring and assistant managing editor in charge of The Washington Post’s Investigative Unit.