History & Treatment of Afro-American Bodybuilders and Weight Lifters

Minority Athletes

Strides Have Been Made in Sports Equality

fitFLEX Articles - Learn, Share and Discover




Lee Haney, Shawn Ray, Flex Wheeler and a hundred other Afro-American bodybuilders are among the top athletes in the sport today, and color barriers have been broken down to a degree never before imagined. Even so, these contemporary black muscle- men are part of a long, honorable and largely unknown tradition. It might come as a surprise to you to learn that there have been Negro strongmen in bodybuilding from the very beginning because they have rarely been given their due. So it's about time that some of these pioneers were acknowledged.

Even from the start black men were certainly no strangers to the covers of bodybuilding and strength magazines. In fact, the first Negro to grace the cover of one of these publications was a long-forgotten strong-man named "Othello, the Zulu Athlete," who appeared on the front of the English monthly Health & Strength in September 1901, and his barrel-chested form showed up inside the magazine in a few subsequent issues.

Othello appeared on the British music hall stage with a strength act that capitalized on the country's interest in South Africa. Since England was involved in the Boer War at the time, his performances were all the more timely. By 1911 the Zulu Athlete had taken a white wife, and the happy couple appeared together in a French magazine, but after that he disappeared from the public eye. Perhaps he returned to his native land or settled down to a more sedentary life in Britain. Unfortunately, Othello was the last black man to be featured on the cover of a major muscle magazine for many years.

During the 1920s a few African-American and West Indian bodybuilders submitted amateur photographs to magazines like Strength and Physical Culture, but black athletes were largely ignored by the writers and publishers at that time. This was soon to change, however, and the agent of transformation was Bob Hoffman of York, Pennsylvania. Hoffman started publishing Strength & Health in 1932, and almost at once Negro strong- men began appearing in its pages.

One of the earliest to gain prominence was Carlton Harris, a worker in Hoffman's barbell factory. The young man had developed his physique with the weights he'd been hired to make, and early photos show that he had not spent his time in vain. In addition to being an athlete, Harris was also an intelligent proponent of the iron game who often gave speeches on the glories of progressive-weight training. "Carlton is a high type of young fellow," wrote Hoffman in 1937. 'His ambition is to lecture and to write." As it became increasingly clear, Harris was not the only young black with ambition in the iron game.

Harris was also not the first black athlete to appear in Hoffman's magazine, for in 1933 S&H ran a brief story titled "The Advent of the Colored Strength Athlete," which featured brief biographies and photographs of three burly muscle- men. The best developed of the trio was Wesley William, who sported a fine, muscular physique. This young strongman had worked his way up through the ranks of the New York Fire Department, eventually becoming a battalion chief. In the segregated department of the time, this was a much more unusual accomplishment than acquiring a championship body.

Still, Williams' physique was far ahead of those of others of his era. His first step on the road to success came when he scored 100 percent on the physical examination required of all fire department employees. In addition, he was a dedicated barbell man who lifted "like a flash in the snatches and has beautiful style," according to S&H. Because the department forbid its members to enter strength or physique contests, Williams' athletic ranking will never be known. Eventually, he became a powerful and positive social force in the Harlem community.

Although he was not allowed to compete, Wesley Williams had his share of good luck, and one of his best pieces of good fortune was meeting Charles A. Ramsey, an experienced weightlifting coach. Ramsey was a native of England who came to this country and dedicated himself to teaching young black athletes the finer points of strength training. His pupils were among the greatest Afro-American strongmen of the early 1930s, and he died in 1954 after a long life dedicated to helping others achieve strength regardless of race.

One of Ramsey's protégés was a young man named John Terry who was destined to outstrip any of the others. Terry was born in Pittsburgh on December 20, 1911, but his family moved to New York City while John was still a young child. The mean streets were crueler than usual for Terry, since he was very small in stature, and growing up in a rough neighborhood meant that he had to excel at either running or fighting. Fortunately, he was good at both.

John measured only a little more than 51", and at his most muscular he weighed 132 pounds. Fortunately, he had exceptionally long arms, and combined with his short height and powerful, stocky build, this gave him an advantage over other lifters in the Featherweight division. It also meant that he was a powerful opponent when it came to his favorite event, the deadlift.

Terry soon made a name for himself in the annals of lifters. In 1939 the little Featherweight shattered the world record by deadlifting 600 pounds-an incredible performance considering the man bodyweight. Earlier, he had earned a place on the Olympic team that went to Berlin in 1936, and he'd acquitted himself honorably although he brought home no medals. When he returned to this country, he was encouraged by Hoffman to move to York, where he could train under expert supervision.

The publisher was very helpful to the young black lifter, and it was largely thanks to Hoffman that there was never a color line in weightlifting. The York organization actually encouraged ethnic and racial diversity in the makeup of the lifting teams. Soon after Terry arrived in the Pennsylvania town, Hoffman set him up in business, putting up the money for Terry to purchase a tavern called the Yea Man Cafe in the colored section of town.

Thanks to the proprietor's genial personality and his sporting prowess, the bar became extremely popular-so popular that Terry had to work 18 hours a day. Somehow the little man squeezed in his training, practicing the three Olympic lifts incessantly. The physical and mental toll of such a life must have been great, since he was only able to catch naps now and then when business at the bar slowed down a little.

Eventually it must have gotten to him because around 1941 Terry got married and gave up serious weightlifting. When World War II was declared, the little lifter was inducted into the Army, aod he dropped out of the sporting limelight forever.

While he was running the Yea Man Cafe, Terry roomed with John Davis, a brawny Olympic lifter. "Little John and Big John," as they were known to nearly everyone, were destined to follow different paths-one to glory, the other to disgrace.

Terry had long been a gun collector, and during a domestic quarrel with his wife the little weightlifter decided to use his weapons. After a particularly brutal argument he got one of his pistols, shot his dogs to death and then turned the gun on his wife. A trial was held, and the once glorious athlete was sentenced to a long term in prison- a tragic end for Little John.

Big John-John Davis-would have distinguished himself in just about any field. It was, however, his strength and his superb physique that set him apart from other athletes. Davis was born into poverty in Smithtown, Long Island, on January 12, 1921, and he was raised in Brooklyn by his mother, a domestic. John began lifting at age 16 and won his first world championship in Vienna a year later. Incredibly, he remained undefeated for another 16 years.

Throughout his career Davis received much attention in the weightlifting and bodybuilding magazines. Thanks to the relatively liberal attitudes of most weightlifting aficionados, there were seldom any problems about blacks competing against whites, even though other types of athletes were experiencing much discrimination.

Davis might have found equality on the lifting dais, but America in the 1930s and '40s was still a segregated society. Although he did not like to talk about it, the Ebony Hercules, as he was called, was denied memberships in gyms because of his color-until he became a star, that is. Davis and his fellow weightlifters often walked out of restaurants because they would not serve the black athlete. In many cities, such as Cleveland and Cincinnati, Davis could not get a room near his contest venue, and he was forced to spend the night sleeping in a chair.

Despite a training break during World War II, Big John was victorious in the Heavyweight division at the 1948 Olympics. This was followed by another victory at the Helsinki Olympics of 1952, but it was to be his final win. After a lifetime in athletics Davis found a job as a prison guard, and when illness forced his retirement, he moved to New Mexico. The Ebony Hercules died in Albuquerque on July 13.

Davis and Terry had both built impressive bodies, but they were primarily weightlifters. The first really prominent African-American physique athlete was Kenneth Pendleton, who came on the scene in the mid-1930s, when his photographs began to appear in the magazines. Kenneth was only 51" tall and weighed 132 pounds of solid muscle. At the peak of his form his biceps measured 15 inches, and it was claimed that his arms were "developed to about the possible utmost." After seeing him for the first time, an astonished reporter declared that Pendleton was "one of the most sensational muscular specimens of all times."

Biographical information about this impressive bodybuilder is scanty, but we do know a few things. He was born around 1906 and lived most of his life in New Jersey. Pendleton obviously spent a great deal of time and effort working on his muscles and had access to some excellent trainers. In 1936 he attracted the attention of bodybuilding photographer Al Urban, who produced a series of classic pictures that justified the praise of later commentators. Pendleton, the writers agreed, "is without doubt the nearest thing to a human anatomical chart we've seen."

In February 1941 Kenneth was judged to have the most muscular physique at the Mr. New York City contest. This was the highest award that any black athlete had ever earned in a bodybuilding competition up to that point, and Pendleton undoubtedly deserved it. Shortly after he won this trophy, the United States entered World War II, and Kenneth was drafted into the Army. Somehow he was able to maintain the championship physique that had widened eyes before the war.

In 1946 Pendleton appeared in the limelight once more. Dan Lurie had declared himself the most muscular man in America, but as is always the case, not everyone agreed with him. While both Pendleton and Lurie had been in the Mr. New York City contest and both had vied for the most-muscular designation, only Kenneth had won. Under the title "Dan Lurie Challenged" the little muscleman dared Lurie to compete with him in a physique contest. Although the proposed competition never actually took place, the challenge marked the first time a black bodybuilder took on a white athlete in a one-on- one challenge. Pendleton dropped from sight afterward; perhaps the diminutive muscleman was simply tired of fighting the system. For whatever reason the world lost a feisty champion.

By taking along, hard look at the earliest days of black participation in weightlifting and bodybuilding, we can gain a few useful insights into the iron game and its treatment of minorities. Thankfully, there was never a strong color line in strength sports, and athletes like John Terry and John Davis were active participant in weightlifting who were more or less accepted by their white colleagues from the beginning. Still, there were tremendous obstacles that African-American strongmen had to overcome.

Racial hatred was a fact of life that touched even the greatest athletes. This prejudice must have made life a virtual purgatory when the men were traveling around the country. Thanks to their strength- both physical and spiritual-each of them was able to make an important mark in their field. The pioneering work of Davis, Terry and Pendleton made progress that much easier for the men and women of color who came after them.

The decade of the 1950s saw many fine black athletes take the spotlight. Melvin Wells, Arthur Harris, Leroy Colbert, George Paine and others rose to prominence at that time thanks to what had transpired a few years before. Even so, progress was frustratingly slow. The first black IFBB Mr. America was Howard Poole, who won the title in 1964, and the first black AAU Mr. America did not show up until Chris Dickerson nabbed that trophy in 1970. Although it did take blacks some time to catch up to their better fed and better trained white colleagues, there was obviously some discrimination at work.

Today many of the same battles are being fought once more as the familiar questions are bandied about. Which publisher is more or less prejudiced than another? Will black athletes maintain their superiority? Is it good or bad for business to put photos of black musclemen on magazine covers? And the list goes on.

Unquestionably, there have been major improvements in the treatment of minority athletes in strength sports. It's probably true that Othello, the Zulu Athlete,. and his brothers would recognize neither weight training nor modern competition, but the questions that were raised 40 and 50 years ago will not go away quickly. It's a situation that we must deal with constantly.




Related Articles