A Colorless “league” – Crossing the Color Barrier

A Colorless “league” – Crossing the Color Barrier

American Fencing Magazine, Fall 2005
Article by Andy Shaw
At the founding of the USFA (called the Amateur Fencers’ League of America), the Executive Committee was formed with two members of each of five clubs in New York City.

To become a member of the “League”, a man (women could not join) had to be proposed by one member and seconded by another. The league was not going to allow professionals to prejudice their national championships. The league was populated by the “right people” in New York society.

The first colored people in American fencing fenced in New Orleans, Louisiana.

A man known as Black Austin was a free Negro fencing master in New Orleans in the 1800’s. Robert Severin, a mulatto fencing master, also taught in New Orleans, as did Basil Croquere, another mulatto fencing master,” the most remarkable colored fencing master of Louisiana”, wrote Stuart O. Landry in his dueling in old New Orleans c. 1950. But New Orleans was an exception as it refused to join the league until 1940 and it’s Fencers’ Federation of New Orleans held international tournaments open to professionals and amateurs from all over the world with noentry fee.

But our fencing association had no people with color for many years.

Here is an excerpt from the Riposte Magazine, the fencing magazine prior to American Fencing.

American Fencing Potentialities

It is estimated that there are between 100,000 and 150,000 fencers in the United States. There are approximately 131,000,000 people in the United States, which means that 1/10 of 1%, or 1 person in 1,000 knows anything about fencing. According to the latest A.F.L.A. records, 1 person in 109,000 is sufficiently interested in organized fencing to join the league.

The fencer is still an American Sports curiosity. We can no longer look upon 131,000,000 Americans as being potential fencers. We should immediately delete our rural population and limit ourselves to 62,800,000 total white urban population. To be on the safe side, we further limit this to the 93 cities have a population of 100,000 or more. Here we find 33,000,000 total white population. We’ll cut this by 50% to eliminate those too young or too old, the halt, the blind and the urban Americans whose only exercise is in reading the sports section of the newspaper. This leaves us with 16,500,000 as a potential market. If half of these would try the sport, we could hold the interest of 10% of them. That would give 825,000 fencers with 1%, or 8,250 becoming members of the A.F.L.A.

It was written by Dernell Every, Olympian, U.S. national champion, and eighth president of the A.F.L.A/U.S.F.A 1945-48.

Violet Barker, a black hairdresser from Harlem, learned to fence from Al Hern from the Harlem YMCA as a part of his WPA settlement house program in the 1940’s.

At the time, the WPA had a citywide championship at seasons end.

The league officials never imagined that a black fencer could win. Violet entered the tournament and won. Her prize was a membership card to the AFLA, thus she became the first black member in the history of our organization.

Some weeks later, she showed up for an AFLA sponsored tournament at the New York Fencers Club and was met at the door by an AFLA representative. He proceeded to rip up her membership card and sent her away. Violet went home and was never seen in fencing circles again.

Her coach, Al Hern, threatened a suit against the league. His club on 14th street was pejoratively nicknamed “The Abyssinian School of Fencing” by certain AFLA members.

Racial lawsuits were increasingly in the news creating bad press for other organizations and the courts were beginning to go against these men’s club’s, forcing them to change their policies.

Hern began the lawsuit but lost his plaintiff. Violet refused to testify.

Then, in 1949, the Columbia University Fencing Team withdrew from the AFLA competitions to avoid discrimination against the team’s two black members at a meet at the Athletic Club.

Excerpts from December 1, 1949, New York Herald Tribune:

Columbian Fencers Quit League over Racial Discrimination

Action Taken After A.F.L.A. Advised That Negroes Be Withdrawn From Meet

Columbian University’s varsity fencing team announced yesterday that it has withdrawn from all competition in meets of the Amateur Fencers League of America in order to avoid discrimination against the team’s two Negro members.

Mr. Velarde, Columbia’s coach, said that his assistant, Mr. De Kof, had been approached by members of the A.F.L.A.’s metropolitan bout committee and advised to avoid an “embarrassing situation” by withdrawing Columbia’s Negro foilsmen from competition last Nov. 20 at the New York athletic club.

Dr. Daniel Bukantz, interviewed for this article, was the chairmen of the Met Division and remembers hearing from Warren Dow that “some indignity might occur if Columbia’s Negroes show up at the meet”.

At least the incidents sparked changes. The AFLA was split on whether to admit other races and religions into the league. After the incident with Violet Barker and the Metropolitan Division of the AFLA, one board member said, “I think we’re all in agreement that if we start letting Negroes in now, the League will be finished.”

Fortunately, not everyone agreed. The president of the League (Miguel Angel deCapriles) eloquently stated, “Gentlemen, it is time we recognize that fencing has changed from the aristocratic sport that it was to the democratic sport that it is.”

This article is a look back at our organization’s past, and not as an assault on any particular fencers or leaders. The leaders represented the views of the majority of the constituents of the time who were not bold enough to reveal their opinions. Our time faces similar injustices and prejudices, but they may be less obvious to us right now. Let us keep striving.