In honor of Black History Month, we here at Last Word on Pro Wrestling will be conducting a series of articles on pioneers in the world of professional wrestling involving African-American (or in some cases, African-Canadian or African-British). We debuted this series with a look at the first African-American pro wrestler, Viro Small (aka Black Sam), from 1870. We continue with a look at the first African-American women’s wrestler, Ethel Johnson.
It’s tough to pinpoint exactly who stepped in the ring first, but the consensus is that Columbus, Indiana’s Ethel Johnson was the first African-American women’s wrestler, starting her training in 1950. She entered the business after training with her older sister, Babs Wingo, who also became a successful pro wrestler around the same time (another of their sisters, Marva Scott, would also enter the business).
Johnson got her big break when she signed up as part of the stable of promoter Billy Wolfe in 1950, taking the then 16-year old under his wing and furthering her training with Wolfe’s then wife, Mildred Burke – she would debut in 1952, at the age of 18. Billy Wolfe would become infamous for her abusive ways with his girls (Burke would leave him in 1952 and start her own women’s wrestling troupe) and held a monopoly on women’s wrestlers in North America – if you didn’t work with Wolfe, it was tough to find work elsewhere (although this caused ex-wife Mildred Burke to head to Japan where she was a huge influence in helping establish wrestling – men and womens).
Ethel Johnson was naturally athletic and it showed in her matches – she was one of the first women (perhaps even wrestlers in general) to use a standing dropkick in her matches. By the end of the 1950’s, she was working with the white women wrestlers, including such legends as June Byers and Penny Banner, as well as working NWA territories. She became a favourite of Stu Hart in the late 50’s, working for his then promotion, Big Time Wrestling (before it was renamed Stampede Wrestling), as well as working for Jess McMahon (Vince McMahon Jr.‘s grandfather) in Capitol Wrestling (what would become the WWE).
She worked for the NWA for most of her career, but in her final years, she was an active member of Verne Gagne‘s AWA roster, up until her retirement in 1976, after a 26 year career in the business. Her final match was against her sister, Marva Scott.