Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Charles "Kid" Finney, Delaware's First African-American Professional Athlete

Most people in Delaware have never heard of Charles Henry “Kid” Finney, but during the early twentieth century he was well known to sports fans in both the First State and the region. Finney was born in Dover around 1887, his exact birthdate remains a mystery because during that time accurate records were not kept, and throughout his life, Finney himself reported his age inconsistently. 

He grew up in what he
described as a tough part of Dover, known as Kirben’s Row. In 1953 Finney told the Journal Every-Evening that it was on Kirben’s Row that young boys in the neighborhood used to put on pillow-like gloves and box. Finney soon “licked all of the boys in his gang” and took up boxing as his livelihood. 

Eventually, the skinny kid from Kirben’s Row proved himself to be one of Delaware’s great boxers. The 1900 US Census shows Finney was living in the Marshallton area where he would soon make his mark.

In 1903 Finney was filmed by the Edison Company for the short comedy, "A Scrap in Black and White." The film was one nine made at Brandywine Springs in 1903. All nine survive today. They are the oldest surviving films made in Delaware.

At this time, prizefighting was illegal in Delaware however boxing itself was not illegal. Boxers were allowed to be paid to fight, they were paid a flat fee and not permitted to win a prize. In the early 1900s it was nearly impossible for African Americans to participate in professional sports. Countless great athletes were never able to cross the “color line.” Even the most impressive demonstrations of athleticism were largely ignored by the newspapers. Often when a newspaper paper ran a story, it would diminish the accomplishment and reduce the dignity of these athletes by referring to them with racial slurs.

African Americans in boxing were typically limited to boxing in “battle royal” fights that were offered as an opening act at boxing events or simply staged as a spectacle. A promoter would find six to ten African Americans and have them all fight at once, slugging away at each other until one man was left standing.

In 1936 Finney told the Journal Every-Evening that it was in one of these battle royals near Brandywine Springs where he started his career as a professional 
Morning News 4-30-1910
pugilist in 1905. Finney won the battle royal and was awarded the sum of one dollar. It is easy to close your eyes and imagine a group of skinny, ragged, young African-American men slugging away at each other whilst a large group of men surround them yelling and cheering. Sometimes men would toss coins in during the match and the boxers would simply stop when the coins stopped. Side bets were often a big part of the battle royal. The next week the local boxing club had Finney return for a bout against local boxer Ralph Raymond.

By 1908 Wilmington newspapers were calling Finney the bantamweight champion of Delaware and a
From the Morning News 
favorite at Brandywine Springs. Finney became well known for his speed, his ability to be battered, and most importantly for sending his opponents to pummel city. Local boxers would write letters to the sports editor of the Wilmington newspapers asking to challenge Finney. He was soon boxing regularly at Brandywine Springs and at various venues around Wilmington and eventually Chester, Philadelphia, and beyond. 

Entry in the 1910 US Census

The 1910 Census list Finney’s profession as pugilist while living at No. 4 High Street in Wilmington with his wife Rosa. Webster's dictionary give the following definition for Pugilist: : FIGHTER 
especially : a professional boxer

After Finney became the bantamweight champion of Delaware, he found no shortage of opponents. Potential opponents even published challenges to Finney in the Wilmington newspapers. Finney would often take on men who outweighed him by 20 pounds and at least once fought two men in one evening. The April 1, 1910 edition of the Evening
Evening Journal
Journal reported that in Philadelphia, Finney defeated Jake Spewak in three rounds. The fans clamored for more and Young Dugan stepped up and challenged him to go three more rounds. Finney took the challenge and bested him too. Official records were not kept, so we do not know the exact dates of all of his fights, nor do we know the length of his reign as champion, but we do know he was active in boxing on and off until 1927 and then trained other boxers in the 1940s. We also know various newspaper reports credit Finney with over 400 wins against only a handful of losses, and reportedly, he was never knocked out.

The Country Roller Rink was located next to Brandywine Springs Park and also served as a venue for fist men to pound the flesh. The bouts at Country Roller Rink quickly gained popularity and boxing flourished at Brandywine Springs, albeit, outside of the park. On May 2, 1910 the Evening Journal reported a boxing card featuring Finney was enough of a draw that the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad operated a special train to the rink from Philadelphia and Chester and the Peoples Railway had 30 trolley cars in use to carry eager boxing fans from Wilmington.

After his boxing career ended, Finney, with little formal education and no other marketable skills, fell on hard times. For a while he lived on Klund Street, one of the poorest ramshackle streets in Wilmington, and for a number of years worked as a junk collector and then as a janitor. At one point in the early 1930s he became ill and spent some time in the State Welfare Home where he was nursed back to health. On May 10, 1963, Finney died in a tiny row house at 910 Walnut Street in Wilmington, his achievements from a half century before had largely been forgotten.

Countless African-American athletes from Finney’s era never got the chance to make it as far as Finney, their names and faces are long lost. Finney crossed the color line and made a living as a pugilist. Finney was a pioneer, perhaps, the first African-American athlete in Delaware to earn a living in sports. His story has been Almost Forgotten.


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