rl reeves jr examines the life of New Orleans boxer Joe Dorsey Jr

“There shall be no fistic combat match, boxing, sparring, or wrestling contest or exhibition between any person of the Caucasian or `white’ race and one of the African or `Negro’ race; and, further, it will not be allowed for them to appear on the same card.”

That’s a rule codified by the Louisiana State Athletic Commission, an agency of the State of Louisiana with “full authority, regulation and control over all boxing and wrestling contests or exhibitions in the state”

On July 28th, 1955, boxer Joe Dorsey Jr filed a petition attacking the rule as unconstitutional.

How did Dorsey get to this point?

Boxer Jack Skelly

On Tuesday, September 6, 1892, black boxer, George “Little Chocolate” Dixon took the ring vs white boxer Jack Skelly in downtown New Orleans at 636 Royal Street.

Admission was $3 ($85 in 2020 money)

The bout took place at the storied Olympia Club in front of a sold-out house. During the 8th round, Dixon knocked a battered and bloodied Skelly clean out, and took home the $7500 prize ($211,000 in 2020 money).

The mostly-white crowd nearly rioted while the black boxing fans of New Orleans took to the streets to celebrate.

Interracial combat would be banned in Louisiana for the next half-century

Skelly vs Dixon at the Olympia Club in New Orleans

It was a mistake to match a Negro and a white man, said the New Orleans Daily Picayune.

The New Orleans Times Democrat chimed in:

The white race of the south will destroy itself if it tolerates equality of any kind

The white voices of the day were clearly not well-versed in good sportsmanship.

Over a half-century later Joe Dorsey would set out to change the world of Louisiana prize fighting.

Attorney Israel Augustine

On Thursday, July 28, 1955, Dorsey, with the aid of attorneys Louis Berry and Israel Augustine, sued the Louisiana State Athletic Commission. A year later they added the state of Louisiana which had just passed a law barring “dancing, social functions, entertainments, athletic training, games, sports or contests and other such activities involving personal and social contacts in which the participants or contestants are members of the white and Negro races.”

In an interview with Jet magazine Dorsey related “I never thought I’d be a fighter,” he continued to say “I was always the scary type.”

But by 1955 Dorsey had brawled his way to a number eight ranking in the light heavyweight division.Trouble was he was having a hard time earning a living due to being barred from entering contests versus white opponents.

When stark terms like familial hunger are on the table drastic action must be taken. Dorsey had a houseful of kids, and was only earning $45 a week as a janitor. With all the little ones clamoring for a little chicken to go with the beans and ‘taters the fighting man approached his problems from a legal angle.

Joe Dorsey’s problems were real. As a 6th grade dropout living in a drafty, old rent house his options were limited, “You get tired worrying if the rats will eat up your kids…if I could just get a few good fights under my belt…,” he would go on to wonder.

Attorney Louis Berry

One of Dorsey’s attorneys, Louis Berry would become a legend at fighting institutional racism. When he attempted to register to vote in his native Rapides Parish he was turned away by the registrar. Undeterred he produced a copy of the Supreme Court ruling outlawing all-white Democratic primaries.

“We left the registrar’s office happy, knowing we had knocked down a barrier from slavery.” It was the first time blacks had been allowed to register to vote in Rapides since Reconstruction.

Joe Dorsey’s other attorney Israel Meyer Augustine, Jr. would become a giant in the world of Louisiana law, and this case would help develop what would become a fearsome reputation in the courtroom.

A third attorney, Albion T. Ricard, faded into obscurity after being disbarred following his wife catching him in an affair with a Southern University coed.

Herbert Christenberry, J. Skelly Wright, John Minor Wisdom

In November 1958, a three-judge federal court panel in New Orleans, John Minor Wisdom, Herbert Christenberry, and J. Skelly Wright found both the Louisiana law and the athletic commission’s own rule against interracial bouts unconstitutional. Writing the opinion, Wisdom of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, said the Louisiana law was “unconstitutional on its face in that separation of Negroes and whites based solely on their being Negroes and whites is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.”

The judges’ decision did not touch on the other aspects of Jim Crow.

“Use the law just like a scalpel to cut away the malignant parts,” Louis Berry

Of course Jack Paul Faustin Gremillion, Louisiana governor Earl Long’s attorney general wasn’t going to take a legal defeat sitting down.

Jack Gremillion

But the Supreme Court quickly affirmed the federal court panel’s decision leaving Gremillion to gnash his teeth before setting out on endeavors that would see him eventually wind up in a federal penitentiary in Florida.

When the Dorsey news reached Louis Berry he pulled his automobile over to the curb and “started laughing and crying at the same time.”

It would be another seven years before a black man faced off against a white man in a New Orleans boxing ring.

And it would not be Joe Dorsey.

Boxer Eddie Perkins

On October 25th, 1965, in front of nearly 4,000 fans, Eddie Perkins, a black man, beat Kenny Lane pillar to post prompting Lane to announce his retirement.

Promoter Curley Gagliano claimed that he lost money on the fight card. Perfidy in the fight business was then as it is now.

On March 21st, 1966, Dorsey would finally step back into a boxing ring in New Orleans knocking out Philadelphia’s Bob Simmons.

Dorsey would end up going on a three fight tear before finishing his career on a two fight skid that ended in a September 1969 loss to Vernon Clay.

It’s clear now that Joe Dorsey jr was blackballed during what should have been the heyday of his career. The white men who were running the boxing industry in Louisiana certainly did not enjoy having a black man dare to challenge their authority.

And for a black man to best them using the legal system? Unthinkable. I’m certain Dorsey’s visage gave these old school Louisiana power brokers many a fitful night as they attempted to slumber.

With Joe Dorsey’s boxing career at an end he did what many physically strong men of his era did. He went to work on the docks and wharves. You could earn a good living as a dockhand or stevedore in those long ago days.

35 years after he last stepped into a boxing ring Joseph ‘Poppa’ ‘Joe’ Dorsey, Jr. passed away on Wednesday, October 20, 2004. His burial mass was held at Epiphany Catholic Church. He was interred at Mt Olivet Cemetery in his ancestral grounds of New Orleans 7th Ward.

b. January 10, 1935
d. October 20, 2004

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Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson by Geoffrey C. Ward
Encyclopedia of Ethnicity and Sports in the United States
Black Dynamite: The Story of the Negro in the Prize Ring by Nat Fleischer
Cherished Memories by Beverly Jacques Anderson
Remaking New Orleans: Beyond Exceptionalism and Authenticity Edited by Thomas Jessen Adams and Matt Sakakeeny
https://www.buzzfeed.com/steveknopper/how-joe-dorsey-knocked-out-segregation by Steve Knopper

  1. Thank RL Reeves Jr for another view of my father’s victory. Very well written. I will share your story with my family. Dorinda Dorsey.

  2. SJ Daniels, Sr. says:

    I Appreciate the History of my Grandpa Joe still Lives in Your & will Forever be in Our Hearts! Thanks RL Reeves, Jr.

  3. Craig Jenkins II says:

    Thank you for shining this light on my Great Grandfather and his achievements! This is black excellence!!!

  4. Shalahn Dorsey Jenkins says:

    Thanks!!! HIStory needed to shine. We appreciate you giving the world the opportunity to see the man we know and loved for many years and the impact he made for us to be able to do the things that we do in life. His sacrifices is monumental!!!
    Would love to have a copy of his picture.

  5. Great story. Love the history lesson and great seeing the children and grandchildren learn this. Very amused at the ad from 1892 did not list George Dixon as “negro” and what a card to be listed on with the Sullivan-Corbett fight. George Dixon must’ve been an incredible athlete to have 163 fights in 20 years. That is insane.

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