Monday, September 1, 2014

Big Bill Tate: The Prizefighter and the Proletariat

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“Big” Bill Tate hung up his gloves in 1928. During his 15-year career, Tate, who settled in Chicago’s Black Metropolis, became one of the most popular black fighters in America. His peak fighting years coincided with the development of Chicago’s political New Negro that battled exploitive capitalism. Armed with an understanding of economic exploitation he gleaned from prizefighting, and empowered by the rhetoric of the New Negro, Tate quit prizefighting to battle for black men on the killing floor. As a labor organizer Tate stood at the forefront of a black political movement linking civil and economic rights. Equally as important, he was the first black athlete to use his platform to advocate for labor rights.
            Born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1893, Tate used fighting to escape Jim Crow. He graduated from the state normal school (Alabama A&M) in Huntsville, where he learned the printing trade, but after college, like most black men, Tate could only find unskilled work. Tate’s formative years in Montgomery overlapped with legal Jim Crow, and white enforcement of such policies, that worked to violently and legally strip black men of their manhood rights. By March 1911, for example, of nearly 53,000 blacks in Montgomery County, only 1,000 had registered to vote.
 Tate’s lot in life changed, however, when Dr. F.C. Caffey discovered him in 1910. Dr. Caffey, the leading health and exercise advocate in black America, had just returned from assisting Jack Johnson with the Jim Jeffries battle. Like white managers who searched for white hopes to dethrone Jack Johnson, Caffey convinced the 6’7’ Tate, who reportedly had plans to attend Meharry Medical College, to enter prizefighting to win the championship. Caffey trained Tate for two years in Montgomery before sending him to New York in 1912.

As a fighter, Tate earned more money and had more mobility than his black southern brothers in the fields and northern brothers in the factories. Despite the freedom and economic mobility boxing provided black men, the politics and fears surrounding race and manhood reduced black fighters’ earnings. Simply put, interracial fights earned black men the most money, but the racial politics of that era restricted mixed bouts. As one white writer observed “the number of bouts between negroes, in fact, the recurrent bouts, they might be called, is due in no small measure to the feeling against so-called ‘mixed bouts’ throughout the country.” Black fighters had two choices, “fight among themselves or quit the ring.” Unfortunately, during his 15-year career, Tate’s fights against black opponents took a physical toll on him. Never great at defense, Tate suffered several vicious beatings by Harry Wills, Sam Langford, Joe Jeannette, Kid Norfolk, and George Godfrey.

Tate’s career coincided with the Great Migration of blacks who left the South for better opportunities in Chicago. Between 1910 and 1920 nearly 56,000 blacks moved to Chicago. The following decade the black population increased by 114%, and by 1930, 233,903 black people lived in the Black Metropolis. In Chicago, however, most blacks struggled to find adequate work. The onslaught of the Depression exacerbated the situation, as blacks were the last hired and first fired. After he retired in 1928, Tate, a leading soapbox orator, helped the Chicago Whip, a radical black newspaper; lead their “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work,” campaign. By 1930,Tate and the Whip helped 2,600 blacks find work.
In Tate’s most important battle, he fought for black unionization in the meatpacking industry. The meatpacking industry was the number one employer of blacks in Chicago, but the industry had a long history of discrimination and violence from white co-workers that made black workers wary of unions. Until WWI, when the factories needed cheap black labor, most blacks only worked at the slaughterhouses as strikebreakers. By 1930, however, blacks represented 30% of workers in the stockyards, but “the bottom rung on the ladder of success was the bloody, slippery floor of a killing room.”

Tate believed that “economic conditions” created “most of [blacks] ills” and the discriminatory job market—97% of blacks in the meatpacking industry had low-paying unskilled jobs—stood as the biggest barrier for black advancement. In his new fighting career, Tate led economic boycotts, parades, and organized black workers. To best serve black workers Tate took a job working as an international organizer for the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America. Tate organized workers in meatpacking centers including Omaha, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Kansas City and gave speeches trying to organize black and white workers. One study noted Tate’s “success in attracting men to the organization constitutes a brilliant record.” And a union leader from Omaha reflected, “We haven’t had much success organizing Negroes. The only one that helped us was Bill Tate.” Tate continued to organize black workers until his death in 1953. Although most blacks remained reluctant to join unions, Tate’s work laid the foundation for a labor movement that triggered the slow move of blacks factory workers into middle-class jobs.

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