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 debut this series with a look at the first African-American pro wrestler, Viro Small (aka Black Sam), from 1870.
While it’s not entirely sure who was the actual first African-American professional wrestler (due to lack of documentation on minorities at the time), the legend of Viro Small, also known as Black Sam, regards this fierce combatant as the first true African-American wrestler during the sports infancy in the late 1800s.
Born into slavery in 1854, Small became an accomplished boxer and wrestler in 1870, working in the traditional “elbow and collar” style, a form of wrestling that originated in Ireland centuries earlier and was brought to America by Irish immigrants, particularly favored in Vermont. Many of the elbow and collar techniques would later be integrated into the Catch wrestling style that took over the wrestling circuit by the end of the 1800s. Although he was born in South Carolina, Small moved to the Vermont area for his training and it’s where his career as a pro wrestling career began. Using the name “Black Sam from Vermont”, it wasn’t long before he began to get noticed by promoters looking to cash in on his good looks and intense competitiveness.
He began to expand his area of competition, first to New England, and then to New York and it was in New York City that Black Sam became a huge star in the growing world of pro wrestling. Unfortunately, pro wrestling wasn’t the commercialized sporting event that it is today – or even like it was at the time of the Hackenschmidt-Gotch matches in the 1910s. Black Sam would frequently take on challenges while working in saloons and clubs (the chosen venue for many of these carny style matches), with a residency at Lightweight Boxing Champion Owney Geoghegan‘s establishment, The Bastille of the Bowery. While he faced whites in these kind of challenge matches, he primarily fought only other African-Americans (usually boxers) in his regular exhibition matches. Sadly, it wouldn’t be until the 1950s that Luther Lindsay (inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2017) would break the color barrier and compete in the first officially sanctioned interracial wrestling matches (the 1978 Sylvester Stallone film, Paradise Alley, is about these bowery wrestling challenges, although it’s set in the 1940s, rather than the late 1800s).
For more information, check out this great short documentary by Elliott Marquez on Viro Small, entitled Black Sam’s Statue.