Louisiana Weekly, March 10, 1934.
This is the second part of a series of posts — actually sections of a much longer article in succession — about Eddie “Kid” Brown, a member of the Secret 9, Louis Armstrong’s semipro baseball team in New Orleans in the early 1930s. Check out the first part here.
In this installment, begin to examine Brown’s other athletic pursuit — boxing …
Before I take a dive into some of the career of Eddie Brown Sr., I need to note that just about every pugilist who fought in New Orleans carried a nickname of some sort or another. Some of the monikers were pretty wacky, and some were a play on words about the boxer’s color — Torpedo Smith, Young Danno, Fast Black, Baby Bear, Battling Siki and any number of fighters coined “Chocolate [something].”
But one of the more confusing aspects of the period in question is several many boxers were nickname “the Kid” or “Kid,” and it can be a challenge at times to parse out who’s fighting whom in which fights. Probably my favorite moniker of the Kids I came across was Kid Stringbean, a New Orleans lightweight in the ’30s.
Some background on the nature of professional boxing in New Orleans in the 1930s could be needed, too. While I was doing research, which largely covered just a couple years (from 1933-35), I found that there often wasn’t too much structure or organization to the proceedings, at least not beyond just the weight categories. Boxers could face one particular opponent multiple times in a year, and Kid Brown had a bout every one or two months. There appeared to be no official state or regional titles or championship belts or rankings; the awarding of crowns seemed to be more of an informal process, almost based on based on popular sentiment or media commentary.
Louis Armstrong’s Secret 9. Eddie Brown is the third player from the left, back row. (Image courtesy of the Louisiana Research Collection.)
For boxers of color, add racism and lack of opportunities to this willy-nilly, chaotic scene that existed for most Louisiana boxers in the 1930s. My friend Derby Gisclair, a local boxing aficionado and historian, related to me in an email the conditions and social background in which black fighters found themselves at the time. It’s lengthy, but I feel his prose captures the scene beautifully, a scene dominated by lonely anonymity, economic desperation and a desire to make their mark somehow, some way:
“The majority of the introductions made at ringside were greeted indifferently, as if smothered under the fog of cigar smoke drifting up to the plenum of dark and aging venues like the Coliseum Arena that [the boxers] found themselves in that night. [The public and the fans] had not and would not form any sort of attachment to the lesser known fighters, particularly black fighters, who all labored in general anonymity.
“Many fought under assumed names, a tradition made famous by the first Jack Dempsey, the Nonpareil, and reintroduced years later by the second Jack Dempsey, the Manassas Mauler. But for legions of boxers it was the first hopeful rung on the ladder that would take them out of the crushing poverty that had invaded the country during the Thirties. In most cases, these bouts were a monologue delivered without notice or critique, but which nevertheless fanned the fire of hope to an entire generation of fighters.
“Boxing was a way to escape the Depression, made even more important to black fighters as a means of also attaining some measure of social justice that was their due, and that they hoped would be different this time. The great black fighters who inspired their ambition ranged from Tom Molineaux to Joe Gans to Jack Johnson, fighters who ascended to the pinnacle of the sport and, in so doing, gained a small measure of acceptance that proved to be as elusive as their fleeting fame.
“Yet these intrepid souls persisted undeterred between the ropes, battling moment-to-moment in a test of courage and morality. It was a fight outside the ring as much as it was a fight within the ring. If they were lucky there was a payday and a short recovery, and a chance to grasp the next rung on the ladder.
“Progress would be slow, typical of the pace of most things in New Orleans, but it came with a glimmer of hope. The club fighters of the Thirties may have labored in anonymity, but they proved to themselves if to no one else that the harder they fought, the more successful they would become.”
The Coliseum Arena in New Orleans. (Photo courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection.)
Overall, according to BoxRec.com, an official boxing statistics holder, Eddie Brown Sr. had a career pro record of 18-7-1, with three knockout wins, in an active career stretching from 1929-36. His first recorded bout, according to the Web site, took place Dec. 11, 1929, against Kid Phillips at the New Orleans Coliseum Arena (where the majority of Brown’s pro fights took place) and ended, interestingly, in the only draw of Brown’s career. (More on this later, however, because murkiness exists in this area.) Brown wrapped up his fighting career with a knockout loss to Edgar Theard on July, 26, 1936, at Heinemann Park (later named Pelican Stadium).
Several other Brown fights heard the gong at Westside Arena in Gretna, La., which is across the river from the bulk of New Orleans itself; and a couple were enjoined at Lincoln Park in New Orleans. (It remains a mystery whether the national anthem at those clashes were performed by Linkin Park.) One took place at the Roseland Athletic Club in Baton Rouge.
From the first fight of Brown’s career — against the aforementioned Kid Phillips in 1929 — New Orleans’ black sporting community knew it had something special on its hands. However, the start of Kid Brown’s fistic career appears to be shrouded in confusion.
Why? Because the media reportage of his first few months in the ring is, to say the least, jumbled. According to BoxRec, Eddie Brown’s debut came on Dec. 11, 1929, in a draw against Kid Phillips on Dec. 11, 1929, at the Coliseum Arena, a narrative that was reinforced by the daily New Orleans States newspaper in the publication’s Dec. 12, 1929 edition.
But the Louisiana Weekly offers a completely different timeline for Brown’s early days as a pro pugilist. The Weekly, New Orleans’ preeminent African-American journal, reported in its Dec. 14, 1929 edition that Brown defeated Kid Alfred on Dec. 8, 1929, at the San Jacinto Club arena as an undercard. (Check out the end of this post for more on the San Jacinto, one of the most influential men’s clubs in the Crescent City.) The paper stated:
“Eddie Brown came up from the canvas to carry away the laurels from Kid Alfred in the semi-final bout. Alfred massaged Brown’s face with a right jab he kept on tap for Eddie’s rushes, but after Brown got hip to Alfred’s southpaw style of milling the rest was easy and the judges handed him the verdict on a platter.”
(I’m not sure if “massaged” is the right word for pounding someone’s face with a fist, but it’s definitely descriptive.)
The boxing gym at the San Jacinto Club. (Photo courtesy the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University.)
Brown quickly gained popularity, it seems, and by his Feb. 2, 1930, clash with John Boneris at the San Jacinto arena. The Weekly described as a pretty boy — it stated that Boneris was a “patent leather topped youngster” who “certainly draws the lady folk out to the San Jacinto Fight Arena” when he fought — who ended up having no chance against the up-and-comer Brown.
The fight led the card that night, signaling that the public already knew the young Kid Brown had dynamite in his fists and lightning in his feet. The bout garnered a large headline on the Weekly’s sports page, and
Boneris, the Weekly stated, was out of shape, and his characteristic “ferocity and craftiness” was no match against “a tartar of the person of Eddi [sic] Kid Brown, 121 pounds …” By the fifth round, Kid Brown had taken control using a “two-fisted attack” that “pounded the ‘Patent Leather Kid’ about the face from long range and peppered his body in the clinches.”
The sixth round all but ended the proceedings in Eddie’s favor, stated the Weekly:
“Brown kept on Bonny all the way jabbing and sweeping him before him with a ceaseless barrage and won the round by a wide margin. And the fight too.”
Things got a little strange a couple weeks later, however, almost inexplicably so. It seems Kid Brown was a card headliner for a slate of fights at the San Jacinto Club on Feb. 16, but, according to the Weekly, he had to back out of his scheduled six-rounder against Kid Bagneris after “suffering a nervous breakdown.”
The newspaper’s article didn’t elaborate on the situation at that time, but in its March 8, 1930, issue, the journal reported Kid Brown back in action for an intense go with Jackie Moore, whom the paper’s sports editor, Earl Wright, colorfully derided as “that little Jamaican that fights at the San Jacinto Arena between boat trips [who] has no more business scrapping around New Orleans for the price of a meal ticket than Phil Scott had for climbing into the same ring with Jack Sharkey over in Miami the other night.” (That was a reference to the heavyweight fight a couple weeks earlier in Miami between reigning American champ Sharkey and challenger Phil Scott of Britain in which Sharkey dominated the Brit in a third-round TKO.)
The Brown-Moore six-rounder on March 2, 1930, turned out to be heated, and not just inside the ring. By the time the clash concluded, those in the crowd weren’t too happy. Reported Wright:
“Moore has everything. A fighting heart, a sock in both mitts terrific enough to drop almost any man in the flyweight and bantamweight divisions and a shift that is beautiful to see in execution as well as in snatching him out of dangerous holes. Jackie brought all of his wares into play Sunday night against Eddie ‘Kid’ Brown … and after the thrills and shouting had died away Moore received the verdict. But he didn’t earn it. Half the fans who saw the mill voiced the opinion along with us.”
Enter even more weirdness, in the form of medical conditions. Wrote Wright:
“But, man and boy, what a scrap that was! Brown, discharged by a doctor five days before the bout, substituted for Bobby Peyton, and the way he left jabbed and hooked his right after the first canto was impressive and disastrous enough to earn him a draw in the least.”
And the climax, per Wright:
“The fighters continued their killing pace throughout the six round and both were bleeding at the end. Moore’s aggressiveness won a large portion of the crowd, but according to our tally a draw decision would have done justice to both fighters.”
Wright didn’t elaborate as to Kid Brown’s exact medical condition, further enhancing the mystery of what exactly transpired in Eddie’s early career. However, these breathless several months — and the media coverage of them — fleshes out the atmosphere in which black pro boxing took place in the first half of the 20th century in the Big Easy. Spirited prose, passionate audiences, scheduling, seat-of-the-pants action … it was all there, in vivid scenes and on sweaty, bloody canvases. It was magnificent.
(The San Jacinto Club deserves its own blog post because of its importance to the New Orleans African-American community in the first half of the 20th century, so I’m going to try to produce such a story within the next few months. For now, check out the end of this post for a “short” — well, short by my standards — description of the San Jacinto for now.)
To kind of cap off the narrative of the first half-year or so of Eddie “Kid” Brown’s fistic career, in early June, I’ll note that even at that young age, “Kid” was already-community minded — in early June 1930, he was on the card for a fundraiser for the “Colored Hospital Fund.” The Weekly described the packed slate of benefit matches at a local community center gym as “a crop of exciting scraps … “ Also on the bill were local pugilists Joe Oliver and Young Harry Wills. (More than likely, the term “colored hospital” referred to the Flint-Goodridge Hospital, which for decades was operated by Dillard University as the primary medical-care center for segregated New Orleans’ African-American community.)
At this point, the online record (such as at BoxRec) of Eddie Brown’s career goes dormant for a spell, and I wasn’t able to fully dive into the period between mid-1930 to early 1932. However, it looks like many of Brown’s bouts between 1930-31 were held at the San Jacinto Club.
Downtown Gretna, 1943. The Westside Arena, where Kid Brown engaged in a few bouts in 1932, is located in the westbank city. (Photo from the Louisiana Sea Grant Digital Images Collection.)
Now, January ’32 is when online lists of Brown’s fights pick back up. It’s also when the New Orleans daily newspaper once again generated coverage of Brown’s fights — of course, their reportage on Brown’s bouts, as well as of black boxing in general, was seriously lacking in detail and comprehensiveness — beginning with a long series of pugilistic encounters at Westside Arena.
The Westside Arena, briefly, was the premier venue for boxing and wrestling clashes on the westbank, which is the portion of greater New Orleans across the Mississippi River that today includes the Algiers section of the city of New Orleans, as well as a good chunk Jefferson Parish. Cities/towns like Gretna, Marrero and Westwego make up the westbank half of Jefferson Parish; the other section is back over the river, mainly in the city of Metairie, to the west of the city of New Orleans. (Numerous semi-pro and even pro teams African-American baseball clubs sprang up very early in the 20th century, and perhaps earlier, on the Westbank, most notably the Algiers Giants, one of highest-profile and successful Negro aggregations.)
At various points during the facility’s existence, promoters (usually either Lou Ovalasiti or Tony Tripani, more on those guys in the post-notes below) strove to assemble weekly, multi-bout cards of black fighters, including Eddie Brown, events that attracted enthusiastic, fairly decent-sized crowds at times. In all, BoxRec lists three of Eddie Brown’s fights taking place at the Westside Arena in early 1932, all of them ending in winning decisions for Brown.
That wraps up Part 2! Look for Part 3 after New Year’s! As always, many thanks for reading!