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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 814

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This is the grave of Harry Wills.

Born in 1889 in New Orleans, we don’t seem to know much about Wills’ childhood, or at least the information is not easy to find. He does seem to have spent some time in his teenage years working on the railroad. What we do know is that by the 1910s, he rose to become one of the leading Black boxers in the United States. But after Jack Johnson became world heavyweight champion, white fighters wouldn’t fight Black boxers for the world title. At this time, boxing was truly the great American pastime. The winner of the heavyweight title was considered the biggest, strongest, toughest man in the world, the symbol of masculinity for the nation. Jack Johnson winning that outraged the white population. And so when other Black boxers came up, leading white fighters refused to fight them.

Among the top boxers was Wills. He had started fighting professionally as a heavyweight in 1911 and rose quickly. The color line meant that the top Black boxers had to fight each other again and again. For example, Wills and Sam Langford fought each other a crazy 22 different times. Wills generally got the best of him too, though 14 of the 22 matches were “no contest.”

In 1926, it looked like Wills would get his chance against Jack Dempsey. But it never happened. Dempsey later said he was more than happy to fight Wills, but Dempsey had also previously said that he would not fight Black boxers. The promoter was kind of sketchy as well (shocking, I know) so it is a little tough to say exactly what happened here. Wills was more than certainly willing to fight. Wills attempted to sue Dempsey on two separate occasions for breach of contract. Al Smith had also cancelled the fight from taking place in New York. Still, Wills was probably paid $50,000 for going through it.

In 1932, Wills retired from boxing. He was living in Harlem by this time and became a successful real estate guy because unlike so many boxers, he invested his money wisely. He long said that not getting to fight Dempsey was the biggest regret of his life. He also became well known for his water fasts, where he claimed he ingested nothing but water for a month every year. He claimed that his diet of “Adam’s Ale” led him to great health: “I lay off eating and take long walks and cold showers, and I never have any business with the doctors. You never will catch me in a doctor’s office.” This was a famous enough thing that Ernest Hemingway referenced it in letters. Wills died of diabetes in 1958, at the age of 69.

Harry Wills is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other great Black boxers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Muhammad Ali is in Louisville, Kentucky and Sugar Ray Robinson is in Inglewood, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

As for why the picture came out so blurry, well, I am truly incompetent at the taking of photos.

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