Babs Wingo, Marva Scott, and Ethel Johnson: Wrestling’s Unsung

Bianca Belair, Sasha Banks, and Jade Cargill are on top of the wrestling world today. However, most fans aren’t aware of the story of the three sisters out of Columbus, Ohio, who paved the way for them and many other superstars of today. These three unsung heroes changed the scope of wrestling during a time when women and people of color were rarely allowed to participate in the sport. Here is the amazing, not acknowledged enough story of Babs Wingo, Marva Scott, and Ethel Johnson.

Unsung wrestling pioneers, sisters Babs Wingo, Marva Scott, and Ethel Johnson.
Unsung wrestling pioneers, sisters Babs Wingo, Marva Scott, and Ethel Johnson.

African American Women Wrestler Pioneers Babs Wingo, Marva Scott, and Ethel Johnson

According to the Collins English Dictionary, an unsung hero is defined as a hero that is not appreciated or praised, although many think they deserve to be. Instead, they usually inspire those around them while breaking down barriers.

When professional wrestling was created in the late 1800s, the ideal wrestler was a strong, physically dominant Caucasian male. Due to segregation and gender laws during the time professional wrestling’s popularity grew, women and people of other races were rarely allowed to participate in the sport, even as spectators.

States like California and New York banned women’s boxing and wrestling, and African Americans were not allowed to compete against their white counterparts.

Little did the world know with the management of Billy Wolfe, three young African American sisters from Columbus, Ohio, would change the scope of wrestling forever just by working hard and being their authentic selves.

Billy Wolfe and Babs Wingo.
Billy Wolfe and Babs Wingo.

Influence of Billy Wolfe

In the early 1900s, women were finally allowed to compete professionally. In the United States, Mildred Burke is listed as the first woman to win the original World Women’s title.

Burke’s ex-husband, Billy Wolfe, was a wrestling promoter with a reputation for creating a draw to women’s wrestling by pushing young, attractive, and athletic girls. As a member of the National Wrestling Alliance, Wolfe created stars and made his wrestlers available to other promotions across the country.

Billy Wolfe managed at least thirty women and was able to make women like Mildred Burke stars.

According to the recommended film Lady Wrestler: The Amazing, Untold Story of African American Women in the Ring, Wolfe was inspired by Jackie Robinson. The way Robinson broke down the color barrier in Major League Baseball and paved the way for African Americans to participate inspired Wolfe to search for young black women to integrate into professional wrestling.

Wolfe was constantly searching for the next big thing that would bring excitement to the business, and signing three attractive black women, he knew, would do just that.

Discovering Wrestling

Born in Decatur, Georgia, and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Betty Wingo (ring name Babs), Ethel Johnson Wingo, and Marva Wingo were three athletic sisters raised like other African American families at the time.

The two eldest sisters, Betty and Ethel, would learn tumbling and judo skills at their local YCMA, with their younger sister Marva following suit shortly after. The girls also participated in gymnastics, all skills that pushed them to be perfect candidates for Billy Wolfe’s team.

Columbus became a famous hub for women’s wrestling due to Wolfe’s influence and partnerships with Ohio promoters and wrestling legends. It didn’t take long for the women to be discovered by him, and at 16, Babs Wingo was the first sister to debut professionally for the NWA.

According to the VICE article, The Forgotten Story of the First Black Female Wrestlers by Corey Erdman, Ethel and Marva’s professional debuts happened a few years later.

The teenagers were known for training with the adults at their wrestling gyms and had a grueling workout regime. Mae Young is known as one of the first women to train with Ethel, showing her how rough the women wrestled.

Wrestling legend Marva Scott was a fierce opponent in the ring in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Marva Scott was a fierce opponent in the 1960s and ‘70s. [Photo: @LadyWrestlerMovie on Facebook]

Strengths of Each Sister

With their athleticism, sisters Babs Wingo, Marva Scott, and Ethel Johnson defied the idea that women were not strong, and it did not take long for them to gain popularity and reputation around the country.

In 1953, Babs had the opportunity to wrestle then champion Mildred Burke in front of a crowd of 9,000 fans. Her win that night earned her the title of the first interracial women’s champion.

Around the same time, Babs and her youngest sister Marva would participate in tag team matches that led them to be billed as the first Negro Women’s Tag Champions, although the crowd did not know they were related.

Each sister’s unique talent grew their reputation, fan base, and exposure.

Ethel began participating in pin-up photoshoots and was the first prominent African American posing in publicity photos. She was known as the beautiful, high-flying, fast-paced sister and was also a three-time Colored Women’s Champion and Ohio Women’s Tag Team Champion with her baby sister.

Babs was known as the “tough and rugged powerhouse,” while the youngest sister, Marva, used her youthful, fresh face to be the perfect babyface.

Ethel Johnson dawning her pin-up-styled wrestling gear.
Ethel Johnson dawning her pin-up-styled wrestling gear. [Photo: @chrisbourneawriter on Facebook]

Perks of the Time

As the popularity of Babs Wingo, Marva Scott, and Ethel Johnson grew, professional wrestling gave African American women access to a comfortable and lavish lifestyle that was unheard of at the time. Usually, the men of the household would travel and work to support the stay-at-home mothers, but that was not the case for these women.

In the documentary Lady Wrestler, the children of Marva recall their mother and aunts working abroad in countries like Australia, Japan, and Korea, and often bringing them back souvenirs and stories from their travels.

Their children also remember coming home to superstars hanging out casually with their mothers, like Bobo Brazil staying the night at Marva’s and taking her children to school.

Although Ethel chose not to tell her children what her profession was as a way to protect them, they recall finding out their mother was a professional wrestler after coming across one of her matches on television and being completely shocked.

And if that wasn’t enough, Lou Ferrigno, the actor who portrayed The Incredible Hulk at the time, came to Ethel’s house to casually hang out, and that’s when the children knew their mother was famous.

The perks of professional wrestling applied to not only the women but their families. They quickly broke down gender and race barriers, as many other black women followed suit and began to wrestle professionally.

Ethel Johnson with her hand raised in victory.
Ethel Johnson with her hand raised in victory. [Photo: @LadyWrestlerMovie on Facebook]

Indignities Encountered Along the Way

During their peak years, Babs, Ethel, and Marva would have been among the highest-paid black athletes in the States. However, the negatives that came with this life were tough enough even to lead one sister to a nervous breakdown.

Wrestling in the late 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s came at a price. Jim Crow Laws were still active, especially when the women traveled back to Southern states and overseas.

Ethel and her family recall instances of hatred, like a police officer pulling out a gun on her sister Babs, but an unnamed male wrestler standing up and protecting her.

During a show held in Missouri, the promoters did not allow black wrestling fans to enter. When Ethel heard this, she and her sisters packed their bags and left as a way to show their solidarity with the fans that were discriminated against.

Goals like wrestling at Madison Square Garden in New York were simply impossible since some states held a ban on women’s wrestling.

Since Ethel and Babs worked their careers as mostly heels, they were victims of physical attacks from wrestling fans. For example, while traveling in Mexico, the fans attending the show would throw pop bottles in the ring, and one even stabbed Babs in the leg with a shard of glass.

In the late 1970s and ’80s, Marva often traveled to Japan to wrestle; however, in another instance, wrestling fans who claimed they were a part of the Yakuza threatened to throw Marva out of a skyscraper window if she did not let her opponent win the match.

In an interview with Jamie Hemmings of Slam Wrestling, documentarian Chris Bournea (Lady Wrestler: The Unknown Story of African-American Women in the Ring) stated that Ethel Johnson “talked about the contrasts of how when she was in other countries a lot of the time wrestlers were treated like royalty basically, but when she would wrestle in the Deep South, this was back in the ’50s and ’60s, she would be subjected to segregation just like other African-Americans.

“She’d have to go in the back door of restaurants and drink from colored water fountains and stay in segregated hotels.”

What the women went through affected their mental health, so much so that it led to Marva having a nervous breakdown due to fear and stress. It was so severe that she spent several months in a sanitarium and after leaving and traveling back to the United States, her passion for wrestling was not the same. While she still wrestled part-time on the weekends, her main job was working as a youth counselor and mentor to students.

Remembering Babs Wingo, Marva Scott, and Ethel Johnson

After the death of Billy Wolfe in 1963, Babs Wingo, Marva Scott, and Ethel Johnson were left on their own to find management. Over a decade later, Ethel would retire at the age of 41, wanting to shift her focus to raising her children, who were becoming of high school age, and to find a second career that allowed more family time.

In 2021, Ethel was inducted into WWE’s Hall of Fame Legacy Wing.

Both Babs and Marva died in 2003, while Ethel died in 2018.

Ethel recalled the wrestling memories as bittersweet. The lavish gifts and ability to travel the world came with depression, mental health issues, and attacks that can not be forgotten.

What these women experienced and fought for paved the way for black women to show their talents in professional wrestling and inspire fans for generations to come.

You can learn more about Babs Wingo, Marva Scott, and Ethel Johnson in the recommended film Lady Wrestlers, which is now available on Amazon Prime Video. You can rent or buy it by clicking here.

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Since childhood, Ebony Nash has been a wrestling fan. She is based out of Cleveland, Ohio, and received her Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 2020. Her favorite wrestlers include Trish Stratus and The Usos. She can be reached by e-mail at ejn16@uakron.edu or on Instagram at @ebonyjnash.