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Martin, Harris (1865–1903)

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Harris Martin

Harris Martin in Minneapolis, 1887. The photograph appeared on page two of the St. Paul Globe on April 27, 1903.

Harris Martin, also known as George Harris, was a middleweight boxer who went by the moniker “the Black Pearl.” In 1887 he became the first Colored Middleweight Champion of the World in a fight staged on the banks of the Mississippi, making him one of the most famous boxers of the period.

Martin was born on April 2,1865, in Washington, DC, 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.

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 seventy-five-dollar “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 “Black 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, the Black Pearl met Black Frank 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.

The fight started slow and steady. It lasted a grueling thirty-eight rounds, by which point both fighters were exhausted. Martin finally landed a blow that caused Frank to take at least ten 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 Black madam Ida Dorsey. Dorsey 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 Harris’ fighting ability. The St. Paul Daily Globe made racially derogatory remarks, reporting that “The Pearlis [sic] too dark to be accused of showing the white feather” and claiming that he “refused to meet men in his [weight] class.

After losing one of his last fights in 1899, at thirty-four 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, Martin left the bar around 8 pm 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 thirty-eight years old. Martin’s funeral was presided over by Reverend W. D. Carter of Pilgrim Baptist Church, and he was laid to rest at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Maplewood.

In 2010, over 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.

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Anderson, Sheldon, ed. Twin Cities Sports: Games for All Seasons. Fayetteville, AK: University of Arkansas Press, 2020.

Aycock, Colleen, and Mark Scott, eds. The First Black Boxing Champions: Essays on Fighters of the 1800s to the 1920s. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.

Cyber Boxing Zone. “Harris Martin.”

Find a Grave. “Harris ‘The Black Pearl’ Martin.”

Libby, Horace M. “Career of Black Pearl; Was a Noted Local Boxer.” Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, December 20, 1914.

Minnesota Boxing Hall of Fame. “Minnesota Boxing Hall of Fame-Pioneers.”

[No author.] “‘Black Pearl.’ The Well Known Pugilist Is Knocked Out by Heart Disease.” Appeal, May 2, 1903.

———. “The Black Pearl Flunking.” St. Paul Daily Globe, August 1, 1890.

———. “The Black Pearl Wins.” St. Paul Daily Globe. December 22, 1886.

———. “Black Pearl’s Death Due to Heart Disease.” St. Paul Globe, April 28, 1903.

———. “Defeated at Last: The Black Pearl Defeats Black Frank in Thirty-Eight.” St. Paul Daily Globe, May 3, 1887.

———. “Heart Disease Puts Out the Black Pearl.” St. Paul Globe, April 27, 1903.

———. “Moore Is Mauled.” St. Paul Daily Globe, May 24, 1890.

———. “Municipal Justice.” Minneapolis Tribune, February 26, 1891.

———. “News Gatherers.” Western Appeal, July 21, 1888.

———. “Note and Comment.” St. Paul Daily Globe, July 31, 1891.

———. “The Pearl Loses a Fight.” St. Paul Daily Globe, July 31, 1891.

———. “‘The Pearl’ Wins.” St. Paul Daily Globe. December 5, 1886.

Related Images

Harris Martin
Harris Martin
Harris Martin
Harris Martin
Drawing of Harris Martin
Drawing of Harris Martin
Sixth Street, St. Paul
Sixth Street, St. Paul
Central Police Station, St. Paul
Central Police Station, St. Paul
Image of Ida Dorsey’s bordello at 212 Eleventh Avenue South, Minneapolis. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user McGhiever, February 19, 2019. CC BY-SA 4.0
Image of Ida Dorsey’s bordello at 212 Eleventh Avenue South, Minneapolis. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user McGhiever, February 19, 2019. CC BY-SA 4.0

Turning Point

Harris “the Black Pearl” Martin defeats boxer Frank Taylor ("Black Frank") in an 1887 match on the banks of the Mississippi River. Martin’s victory makes him the Colored Middleweight Champion of the World.



Harris Martin is born on April 2 in Washington, DC.


Martin has his first professional fight, in Philadelphia.


The St. Paul Globe gives highlights of Martin’s wins against Jim O’Brien and Dan Sommers.


Martin wins a fight against Frank Taylor to become the Colored Middleweight Champion of the World.


Martin wins the Middleweight Championship of the Northwest.


Martin fights reputed boxer Robert Fitzsimmons. Fitzsimmons defeats him in four rounds.


Martin is arrested after a run-in with St. Paul bordello owner Ida Dorsey.


In February, Martin pays a twenty-dollar fine for assault and battery against Lena Smith.


Martin goes West as his career and personal life go into a downward spiral.


Lightweight fighter Bobby Dobbs defeats Martin in San Francisco.


Martin appears in his last-known professional fight, in Salt Lake City.


Martin dies of a heart attack in St. Paul.


Martin is inducted into the Minnesota Boxing Hall of Fame.