African American Knife-Fighters of Old New York
The above illustration, published during World War I, on May 22, 1918 in the New York Herald, commemorates the act of two African American soldiers who heroically took on 24 German soldiers and survived (and who shall be covered in Part 2 of this post).
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, African Americans fought a large number of knife combats in New York City. Such fights ranged from outright street melees, to one-on-one combats in which the participants observed loose rules in order to ensure a fair and equitable combat. These were, for the most part, not duels per se, but hot-blooded affairs fought on the spur of the moment due to sudden insult or provocation. Combats were fought by black men as well as women.
Enough African Americans became adept at the knife that, during World War I, after U.S. troops had been armed by the government with bolo knives, the military brass began to take notice of their skill–and such proficiency was deemed a cultural phenomenon. As an article published on July 26, 1918, in the Bourbon News explained,
“Our colored troops display a special aptitude and affection for this weapon [the knife]. The white fighter is inclined to rely upon his automatic pistol in an emergency at close quarters, but the colored man in uniform takes as naturally to the bolo knife…”
A search through the archives of several New York City newspapers has turned up a number of accounts of black knife fights. One of the earliest records of a New York City fight that we found, from 1895, was between white and black horse jockeys, in which it was noted that the latter had the advantage in both skill and speed:
Notably, such knife combats were not the domain of males alone, as can be seen in the following account of melee involving a woman:
African American women also engaged in a number of one-on-one knife combats, as can be seen in the following articles:
Some combatants also substituted razors for knives, as can be seen in the following account of a “duel”, which took place in 1898:
OUTSIDE NEW YORK CITY
One might wonder, just when did African American fighters and martial artists develop a propensity for knife combat? Although we have not been able to find earlier accounts of such combats set in New York City, we have been able to track down several incidents which took place earlier, in other cities or states, and that were reported in the New York press. The earliest is from 1849, and took place in Albany, New York:
Following are several more accounts from other states:
Continue on to Part 2, in which we profile the two African American war heroes that successfully fought off 24 German soldiers during World War I, and survived.
Those who enjoyed this article may also be interested in: