The cause of civil rights in Wisconsin has been advanced through the years by stalwart trailblazers who weren’t afraid of a punch in the mouth. Or, in the case of Bruce Flowers – who ended discrimination against black boxers in the state when he stepped through the ropes at the Milwaukee Auditorium 84 years ago – in the plums.
Prize-fighting has always been a refuge for those at the bottom of the economic pecking order, but in the first third of the 20th century when boxing enjoyed its highest level of popularity in Wisconsin, Milwaukee was one of the top ring venues in the country. Black fighters were expressly barred from making a living here however.
The policy was due in part to the rowdy reign from 1908 to '15 of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, whose gold-toothed smile, fondness for white women, and especially the ease with which he dispatched "White Hopes" caused lots of white people to see red, including the author of an unsigned editorial on the sports page of the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1912 that began, "For a number of years we have been humiliated at the spectacle of a big black man carrying the title of heavyweight champion of the world. It has been mighty humiliating …"
There was no indignant editorial about a boxing show at the Milwaukee Athletic Club on April 13 of that year, where the crowd hooted and jeered at six blindfolded black men – "husky dinges," in the words of The Milwaukee Journal – wailing away at each other until only one was left standing.
The winner of the "Battle Royal," as these racist carnivals held for the entertainment of white audiences were called, was identified as "Kid Smoke" and for his victory received a pork (the Journal called it "poak") sandwich.
In 1913, the state legislature approved a bill setting up a commission to oversee and regulate boxing in Wisconsin. Appointed as its chairman was Walter H. Liginger, former president of the Milwaukee Athletic Club, the Amateur Athletic Union, and a honcho of the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis. Under Liginger, Wisconsin became the model for other states setting up their own boxing commissions, and the world’s top fighters came here to exhibit their skills and fatten their wallets.
The white ones, that is.
Like Jack Johnson, Sam Langford was a great black fighter who today is enshrined in the Boxing Hall of Fame. Langford was nowhere near as flamboyant outside the ropes as Johnson, but when Racine promoters wanted him to fight there Liginger rushed to protect the sensibilities of the Wisconsin sporting public.
"We have a rule on our books that negroes cannot box in this state," he said, "And we do not intend to waive it for anyone. Negro boxers have done more to put boxing in disrepute than all the white boxers in the game, and whenever there is a scandal, invariably there is a colored gentleman involved."
In fact, the only "scandal" involving a black boxer in Wisconsin had occurred on Dec. 8, 1899, when local white heavyweight George Lawler and a black fighter called "Klondike" went eight rounds at the Milwaukee Athletic Club. It was an awful fight, and for years afterwards whenever the local press or officialdom warned of the problems resulting from mixing the races in the ring, they invoked the foul-filled Lawler-Klondike fight.
What they invariably left out, though, was that all contemporary newspaper accounts of the sleazy fight blamed it exclusively on the white guy.
Calling Liginger’s ban "unjust, un-American … and a public degradation and insufferable injury to colored Americans," J.D. Cooke, president of the local Colored Citizen’s Liberty League protested it in a letter to Gov. Frances McGovern.
"The colored American citizens have been loyal to the Stars and Stripes in every war this country has ever engaged in," wrote Cooke. "Therefore, we do not intend to sit idly by and have our rights taken away from us."
But Liginger’s decree stood until 1918, when he reluctantly allowed Sam Langford to darken the ring at the Auditorium. Then 47, Langford and another ancient black heavyweight named Jeff Clark wheezed through 10 boring rounds in a match approved only because the proceeds went to the Red Cross.
Afterwards, Liginger said the results validated his ban on black boxers, which he now unilaterally reinstated.
"It was the first and last match between negroes in Wisconsin," declared the chairman. "They have tried to break in here and finally were accommodated, but the showing last night has convinced the people that they want no more of them."
That’s how it stayed even as other states started allowing mixed matches. In 1926, Tiger Flowers became the first African-American since Jack Johnson to win a world title when he beat Harry Greb for the middleweight belt in New York City.
The new 160-pound champion was no relation to the fighter who claimed the "World’s Colored Lightweight Championship" a year later. Born in New Rochelle, N.Y., Bruce Flowers had turned pro in 1924 after winning 50 of 52 amateur fights. His slick boxing skill reminded old-timers of Joe Gans, a turn-of-the-century black lightweight champion so clever he was known as "The Old Master."
In six years as a professional boxer Flowers was said to have earned $300,000. He was a quiet, respectable family man who prayed before every fight that no harm would come to his opponent.
Such un-Johnsonlike virtues undoubtedly persuaded Liginger to go along when Milwaukee promoter Tom Andrews proposed Flowers for a match with local sensation King Tut (nee: Henry Tuttle) at the Auditorium on April 11, 1930. That, and the fact that Tut’s originally scheduled opponent had cancelled just four days before the fight, and efforts to substitute two other pale-faced fighters had fallen through.
"I see no reason for discriminating against a Negro fighter if he is capable of putting up a good fight," said Liginger.
The news that the color line was being erased here made banner headlines in the local press.
"Wherever you turn these days, it seems that everyone is talking about box fighting," noted Sentinel sports editor Ronald McIntyre. After Flowers arrived in town on the Tuesday before the Friday night fight, his workout at Morgenroth’s gym on West Water Street (now Plankinton Avenue) drew almost 100 onlookers. Such attention wasn’t new to Flowers. On March 7, 1928, he had integrated boxing in Michigan by beating Spug Myers in Detroit.
There hadn’t been a sellout for a boxing card at the Auditorium in almost a decade, but 7,900 fans packed what is now the Milwaukee Theatre for the big fight, and a few thousand more couldn’t get in. The next day the Journal ran a panoramic photo of the wall-to-wall spectators surrounding the ring in which the first black man and white man to swap punches here in 30 years went at it until an unintentional low punch by Tut incapacitated Flowers and resulted in Tut’s disqualification in the fifth round.
"There wasn’t any outbreak demonstration of racial hatred that certainly would have been in evidence in Chicago if the same thing had happened there," wrote McIntyre in the Sentinel the day after.
"Flowers was fouled; he was badly hurt and he deserved the fight under the rules. Because he was colored he wasn’t begrudged the verdict. The fans left the Auditorium with the realization that Flowers is a great fighter, and while they felt sorry that Tut lost, they realized that the fair thing had been done."
In three subsequent Milwaukee fights, Flowers won only once. But the barrier he broke through 84 years ago entitles him to have his hand raised again this Black History Month.