Filmmaker Chris Bournea uncovers stories of African-American women pro wrestlers

In 2006, author, journalist and filmmaker Chris Bournea was working at ThisWeekCommunity News. One of his regular sources introduced him to a local woman who was known for hosting wrestlers, body builders and other unique characters at her house. It was suspected the woman might even be a wrestler herself.

That woman was Ethel Johnson. She was, in fact, one of several African-American women from Columbus who worked as professional wrestlers in the 1950s, '60s and beyond. That year, Bournea penned an article on Johnson for the Columbus Dispatch.

“Ethel told me these amazing stories of going all over the world,” Bournea said in a mid-March interview. “She went to Cuba before the embargo, [and] she went to Puerto Rico, Mexico, Japan, Australia, Montreal and other parts of Canada.”

But while Johnson was accepted overseas, she experienced racism in the American South. “She'd have to go in the back door of restaurants,” Bournea said. “She'd have to stay in segregated hotels. She'd have to drink out of ‘colored' water fountains and little kids would call her ‘girl.'”

Bournea soon learned of the other women wrestlers and decided to capture their experiences on film. “I just thought their story was so much [grander] than just one newspaper article,” he said.

That documentary, “Lady Wrestler,” has come to fruition, and will premiere at the Wexner Center for the Arts on Thursday, March 29. Bournea, who worked on the film in residence at the Wex, highlights four women: sisters Babs Wingo, Ethel Johnson and Marva Scott, along with Ramona Isbell. (Only Johnson and Isbell are still alive.)

“I was just struck how I grew up in the black community in Columbus [but] I never heard about these women,” Bournea said. “There are other people who are like folk heroes, like [wood carver] Elijah Pierce, that you still hear about, but for some reason these women have just kind of faded into obscurity.”

The 1930s-1950s represented the golden age of women's professional wrestling, popularized by pioneer and champion Mildred Burke. Her husband, the infamous promoter Billy Wolfe, managed her and most of the African-American women wrestlers in Columbus. He employed a “sex, muscles and diamonds” formula: sex appeal, athletic training and a glamorous, Hollywood starlet image.

“The main component was ‘muscles,'” Bournea said. “These women went through hours and hours of athletic conditioning. … These women were real athletes.”

“I had to build myself up,” 78-year-old Ramona Isbell said by telephone. “I had to run up and down the steps to get my legs built up. I had to run around the fields. … I got part of my ankle cracked in the ring. So all that stuff, to me, is no different than the boxer in the ring when he goes out to train.”

At first, Isbell's training was done in secret as a teenager after her mother forbade her to wrestle. “I would sneak out and train and pretend like I was somewhere else,” Isbell said.

Throughout her 20-plus-year career, Isbell faced myriad challenges. “Like the women are fighting today to be equal in their pay, we had that real bad in our day,” she said. She also recalled the segregation she faced in states such as Georgia, Florida and parts of Texas. “Houston was fine because [we met] a black man that owned a restaurant and hotel,” she said.

“They went through not only challenges in the South with institutionalized racism, but actually institutionalized sexism,” Bournea said, mentioning states such as New York, which banned licenses to women wrestlers until 1972.

Despite learning about those hurdles, Bournea said he was encouraged by the project. “The main takeaway that I got from researching [for] the documentary is that allies come in unlikely packages,” he said, pointing to Wolfe and Columbus-based promoter and National Wrestling Alliance co-founder Al Haft. While they were sexist in many ways, they had progressive attitudes toward race, Bournea said.

Though the wrestling industry has failed to properly acknowledge African-American women wrestlers, many of them avoided the limelight. “Once their wrestling careers were over, they just shied away from attention, or were like, ‘That was my old life. I've moved on,'” Bournea said. “Some of them had second careers … and they just felt like they didn't want to talk about it anymore.”

Isbell cited negative feedback, invasive questions and people making assumptions about her sexuality as some reasons she avoids talking about that part of her life. “Sometimes people are just mean,” she said. “I just like to keep things quiet and stay out of trouble.”

Though people have repeatedly asked her why she wrestled, Isbell said she's still uncertain of the answer. “Maybe it was a way of retaliation against life,” she said. “But I enjoyed it.”