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Harris Martin was a boxing pioneer and early World Champion

In 1887, “the Black Pearl” won a fight staged on the banks of the Mississippi that made him one of the most famous boxers of the period.

Harris “Black Pearl” Martin was born on April 2,1865, in Washington, D.C., and made his way to Minnesota sometime in the late 1880s. Not much is known about his personal life in the years before he entered the ring in Minnesota. Early in his local boxing career he was coached by a number of Black professionals, like “Professor” Charles Hadley, who noticed his talent and encouraged him to be more active on the boxing scene.

Harris Martin in Minneapolis, 1887
Minnesota Historical Society
Harris Martin in Minneapolis, 1887
Martin made his earliest appearance in the Minnesota press in an 1886 St. Paul Daily Globe article detailing his fights against local boxers Dan Sommers and Jim O’Brien. The fights took place at the back of a Sixth Street saloon at midnight. Martin won both fights, gaining a reputation as a boxer who punched with “sledgehammer action.” Fighting in back rooms as well as established event centers around the country, Martin often received hefty prizes, like the $75 prize purse he won in his fight against “Young” Jack McKay in 1886.

Martin’s star rose quickly in Minnesota, and just one year after winning his fights against McKay, O’Brien, and Sommers, he reached the pinnacle of his career. In 1887 Martin sparred with middleweight fighter Frank Taylor, cementing his legendary status as a fighter who could take as much as he could give in the ring.

On the night of May 2, 1887, Martin met Taylor on “a well-shaded” spot on the banks of the Mississippi, somewhere on the border of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Prize money, reputations and the title of Colored Middleweight Champion of the World were on the line. As Frank and Martin warmed up, a “tony” crowd gathered to witness the open-air fight with damp ground serving as the boxing ring.

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The fight started slow and steady. It lasted a grueling 38 rounds, by which point both fighters were exhausted. Martin finally landed a blow that caused Frank to take at least 10 seconds to get back on his feet, and the Black Pearl was declared the victor, winning a $225 prize.

Outside of the ring, Martin lived a fast life, frequenting sporting houses and drinking into the early morning hours. On the night of July 31, 1891, he headed to the Minneapolis bordello belonging to the famous madam Ida Dorsey. Dorsey, who was Black, had a reputation for barring Black men from her sporting house, and she denied Martin admittance that night. After being refused entry, he attempted to kick down the door, which resulted in his arrest.

After being arraigned, Martin offered to pay a fine in exchange for his freedom. The judge, however, cited past offenses and sent Martin to the workhouse, where he trained for an upcoming fight. The incident was one of many that signaled a decline for the famed boxer. The same year that he was arrested for kicking down Dorsey’s door, Harris faced a string of losses, and the press began to voice doubts about his fighting ability. The St. Paul Daily Globe also made racially derogatory remarks in its reporting on Martin.

After losing one of his last fights in 1899, at 34 years old, Martin took odd jobs in St. Paul to make ends meet. In 1903, after a few years of living out West, Martin returned to Minnesota and bartended at Phil Reed’s bar in St. Paul. On the night of April 26, 1903 Martin left the bar around 8 p.m. to visit Henry Shaw at his home at Fourth Street and St. Peter Street. As the retired pugilist walked from the bar to his acquaintance’s home, he suffered a heart attack. A doctor performed life-saving measures, but Martin died at the Central Police Station. He was 38 years old. Martin’s funeral was presided over by the Rev. W. D. Carter of Pilgrim Baptist Church, and he was laid to rest at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Maplewood.

In 2010, more than 100 years after his death, Martin was inducted into the Minnesota Boxing Hall of Fame. He is cited as a pioneer of the sport along with Oscar Gardner, Charley Kemmick, Danny Needham and Pat Killen.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.