Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts in History



First Reader/Committee Chair

Johnson, Diana


When teaching about the twenty-first century in the United States of America, educators delve deeply into how the Jim Crow Era was but a new manifestation of a slave-era philosophy. As W.E.B. Du Bois states in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” Inspiring pro-Jim Crow government officials and citizens to impose economic and political segregation on black citizens that, on paper, are “separate but equal” when infringing on their civil and human rights deliberately. Limiting the black individual to the status of second-class citizenship where they are not slaves nor citizens, numerous historical figures emerged in the communal effort to end the color line’s systematic influence. However, among the accounts of brave activists fighting for equal rights between the races, those who defied the color line with more self-centered ambitions exist.

Black Pugilism studies, analyzes, and illustrates how the realm of professional boxing became a fascinating focal point of racial tension. Two manly descendants of enslaved peoples use the worldly popular craft to express themselves self-absorbedly and unapologetically or an appealing image of their community to their naysayers and oppressors. Those legendary men are “The Galveston Giant” Jack Johnson and “The Black Panther” Harry Wills. Readers will learn how and why professional boxing was a contentious arena between black equality activists against economically and politically advantaged pro-Jim Crow whites over the “reality” of white supremacy. A “reality” so faulty that when even a single boxing match can effectively prove it as mere fantasy, white men nationwide pay rapt attention in hopes of validation for their racial and manly validation expectations. As W.E.B. Du Bois expresses in his 1910 magazine article “The Souls of White Folk,” “pity for a people imprisoned and enthralled, hampered, and made miserable for such a cause, for such a phantasy!”

So too, enters the politics of manliness. Precisely because, in early Jim Crow eyes, masculinity is an exclusively white trait. An underrepresented and virtually untaught history in the fight for equality in spaces of more than one color. Examining the encompassing racial and gender politics of the multi-decade story will reveal the ease of disrupting but the difficulty of ending the entrenched belief of inherent greatness by skin color. As seen when the sons of freedpeople are not seen and treated as men but as a lowly race of males of far lesser mental and physical makeup than any white man. Then, after revealing no correlation between masculinity and race, a new predominant narrative emerges of the black man as beastly and immoral. An unforgiving history of the frustrating and fatal gradual progression to one day become a justly and fairly treated demographic of American citizens.