Battle Royal: When whites paid black men to beat the hell out of each other
Q: One of the museum staff mentioned a “Battle Royal” where black boys would be paid to fight one another blindfolded at carnivals, can you provide more information about these battles??
–D. Manning, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
A: It was announced in the newspapers as an “Athletic Show” and it began with a “battle royal” boxing bout among five Negroes. Five burly men, stripped to the waist, entered a roped arena on a platform. At the stroke of the bell two couples immediately began sparring. The fifth man then pitched into one of the boxers who seemed to be having the best of it, thus breaking up the pair. The released man turned to the other group and picking out one of the men began without warning to punch him. And so the fight proceeded. No matter how cleverly a man might be holding his own he was always in danger of having someone come at him from behind with a none too well padded fist. Scientific boxing was not in evidence. The contest was one of brutal physical endurance. When a man could keep it up no longer he left the ring and the winner was the man who stayed in longest. As announced, the winner was to receive $4.00, the second place man $2.00, and the third $1.00.
(Recreation in Springfield, Illinois 1914)
This scene was commonplace at many carnivals, fairs, and boxing matches throughout the American landscape. Blindfolded African American men and boys beat each other senseless for the comedic pleasure of the audience and in the hopes of winning a few dollars. These battle royal matches were held at many types of venues and involved anywhere from four to thirty blindfolded “negroes.” While there were a few instances of white participants, the overwhelming majority of fighters were African American males. Advertisements for these events typically promoted them as comic events with “Negro” or “Colored” combatants.
At fairs, carnivals, benefits, and holiday festivals throughout the country, battle royals were among the featured events.
- In the Amarillo Globe Times in 1932, a sports carnival included “wrestling, hosing, comedy, novelty numbers, orchestra and a negro battle royal” (May 9, 1932).
- In Iowa, a “negro battle royal” was staged at the center of the park for a Fourth of July celebration (Mason City Globe-Gazette, June 29, 1934).
- At a Firemen’s picnic in Biloxi, Mississippi, it was determined to have a “negro battle royal Sunday at 8 p.m. as a feature attraction (Biloxi Daily Herald, July 6, 1937).
- Along with bicycle and relay races at the annual Scurry County Fair in Texas, there was a “feast of good things” where community stunts, fiddlers, string band contests and a negro battle royal were going on every day during the fair (Abilene Reporter News, September 22, 1929).
- In between horse races and bicycle races at the state fairgrounds in Wheeling, West Virginia, a battle royal “between six colored boys” would be part of the “amusements” (Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, August 7, 1899).
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