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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 860

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This is the grave of Sam Langford.

Born in 1886 in Weymouth Falls, Nova Scotia (the 1883 date on the gravestone is incorrect and it’s surprising how often this happens), it’s possible Langford was a descendant of the freed slaves who settled up there after the American Revolution or War of 1812. I don’t know this, but it makes sense anyway. Either way, he had a terrible upbringing, running away from home as a boy to escape the physical abuse of his father. Eventually, he ended up in Boston, where he got a job as a janitor in a boxing ring. Eager to try the sport himself, he discovered quickly that he was quite good at it. In 1901, he won the amateur featherweight division in Boston, despite being only 15 years old. A star was born.

By 1903, Langford was winning major fights. He took out Joe Gans, who held the World Lightweight Championship. It was not a title bout, but was still a significant victory for the kid. Largely, he fought whoever he could find. He wasn’t going to be able to compete for white-held titles. He was a contemporary of the great Jack Johnson and the latter’s titles made sure that whites weren’t going to allow anything else like that again for a very long time. Many have said that Langford, as great as he was, might be the most prominent boxer to never fight for a title, though he fought for many Colored titles. He in fact did fight Barbados Joe Wolcott in 1904 for the welterweight title and the fight was a draw, though many observers evidently believed Langford should have won. By all accounts, Langford whooped him, knocking him down several times and cutting him up pretty good, though Wolcott stumbled through it. Who knows though. Also, in 1907, Langford fought for the Colored Middleweight Championship, beating Young Peter Jackson in one of their six bouts.

Although Langford had started out as a featherweight, he wanted to fight for the Colored Heavyweight Championship. At this time, the physical size of boxers tended to be less than today and a lot of the weight classes had more to do with muscle and nutrition than what they were born with. There was a big tour of Australia in 1912 with leading Black boxers to fight a series of bouts to lead to the Colored Heavyweight Championship. Langford evidently had a good time on this tour, doing a lot of public exhibitions. He didn’t win that championship, but he was by all means very impressive, using his tremendous speed and quickness to take on the bigger men. For that matter, in 1906, he had fought Jack Johnson. He was way smaller than Johnson. But he was faster. Johnson beat him. But Langford lasted all 15 rounds and Johnson refused to ever fight him again. He said it was because Langford wanted too much money and that might be true, but Langford was an actual threat to Johnson. Moreover, Langford did win the Colored Heavyweight Championship on five different occasions between 1910 and 1918. During some of this period, Johnson was the World Heavyweight Champion. But Johnson still refused to fight him. So he never got that real title shot. Some of this is that Johnson was highly reluctant to fight Black boxers for the title. He wanted to beat up white boxers. And he also reflected the overall racism of the time and so kept up the barriers to the title that he himself had surpassed. By the time that Johnson lost the title to Jess Willard in 1915, Langford was still in peak shape. But the whites who ran boxing decided to not allow Black competitors to the title anymore. So he never did get his shot.

These guys fought all the time. It wasn’t like today, where a big fighter has a match or two a year. Langford’s overall record was 211-43, with 52 draws and 7 no contests. That’s…..a lot of fights. By the 1920s, Langford was losing his sight. While I don’t know whether hundreds of fights were the reason, it sure as heck couldn’t have helped. In 1922, he was still fighting while being nearly totally blind. His last fight was in 1926. By this point, he was clinically blind.

Like most blind people in the 1920s, Langford had nothing. He made plenty of money while boxing, but also spent al that money just as fast as he earned it. He ended up homeless in Harlem. In 1944, a New York boxing columnist found Langford and wrote a column about him. This led to a campaign to help him out. About $10,000 came in. He was able to get money to restore at least some of his eyesight through a surgery. So that’s good. In 1955, Langford was inducted to the Canada Sports Hall of Fame and the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame. He was still alive at this time. He died in a nursing home in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1956, at the age of 69.

Much later, in 2018, Langford was named the 5th greatest athlete ever from Nova Scotia. Well then.

Footage of Langford does exist. Here is a fight against the Australian Bill Lang. I assume this was colorized later, but I’m really not sure. Either way, this is very cool footage.

And here’s footage of a 1910 fight against Jim Flynn.

Sam Langford is buried in Cambridge Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If would like this series to visit other Black boxers of the early twentieth century, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Barbados Joe Wolcott is in Dalton, Ohio and Joe Jeanette is in Fairview, New Jersey. In fact, I am leaving on Monday on my first flight since the pandemic began and of course it is dedicated to this series, where I will see some of the very worst (and a few of the best) Americans to ever live. So if you want to help with those expenses, please do! Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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