A Dog and a King: Looking at The Junkyard Dog's experiences in the wake of desegregation and assassination

A heretofore seemingly forgotten story in the early life of Sylvester Ritter (The Junkyard Dog) may offer some insight into the personality of the man who later transcended race to become the first Black wrestler indisputably pushed as the top babyface of a major pro wrestling territory in the South. The story has nothing to do with wrestling, though if you view professional wrestling in the territorial era as a sort of morality play based on real-life struggles & issues and you look at the role Junkyard Dog played as an extension of that, then it has everything to do with it.

In 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously voted to overturn a U.S. District Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in the process partially overruling an 1896 Supreme Court decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, stating that the “separate but equal” notion was unconstitutional for American public schools and educational facilities. The following year, the Court ordered states to desegregate “with all deliberate speed”.

Despite the landmark ruling in that case, the schools in Anson County, North Carolina (as well as much of the state) remained segregated for some time after. African-Americans made up just about 50% of the school-age population in Anson County, so the three school systems in the county (Wadesboro, Morven, and Anson County) each maintained two separate sets of schools: one for white students and one for Black students. Wadesboro was the most populous town in the county; among its 3,000+ residents at the time was a young Sylvester Ritter, born in 1952.

After the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board, the Governor of North Carolina created a committee to study the issue. The committee concluded that integration in public schools could not be accomplished and should not be attempted. The committee later established the Pearsall Plan (named after the group’s chairman), which began a system of local (rather than state) control over desegregation. A statewide referendum in September 1956 approved the plan by a margin of four to one. Keep in mind, this was during a time when few Blacks in the state were allowed to vote; the Voting Rights Act was still almost a decade away and North Carolina, along with the other Southern states, had found ways around the 15th Amendment in the form of Jim Crow laws.

With desegregation left in the hands of local districts, where the school boards were made up of mostly whites (no matter the makeup of the general population), the overwhelming majority of districts in the state remained segregated. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, students and families in Anson County were given a choice. At first, a small number of Black students chose to attend the formerly all-white schools.

It is believed that this first group included Sylvester Ritter, who was among several athletes invited to switch schools by a junior high football coach named Ed Emory. As a result of this, Emory says that he was confronted by the Grand Dragon of the local KKK chapter, whose two sons went to the school. Feeling unsafe, Emory left the school shortly thereafter and took a job as an assistant coach at Wake Forest.

The following year, a larger contingent of Black students planned to attend the formerly all-white school in Morven. On September 12, 1966, bombs exploded outside of the households of three Black families. More bombings followed and a large number of students who had originally planned to switch schools chose to stay put.

The following year, the school board decided to send all 11th and 12th grade students to a single, consolidated high school. On June 29th, 1967, shortly after this decision was announced, five bombs exploded simultaneously on properties owned by four school board members and the superintendent of schools. In spite of this, Anson County schools were fully integrated for the 1967-68 school year following a lawsuit by the NAACP. By this point in time, Ritter was attending Anson High School, where he was on the football team.

On April 4, 1968, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. The next morning, a Friday, many Black students at Bowman High School in Anson County participated in a “pray-in demonstration” that resulted in the dismissal of school for the day. 

The following Monday morning at Anson High School, several Black students, upset over the apparent decision of the school to not fly the flag at half-mast (with the school claiming they had yet to make a decision regarding the flag), walked out of class and marched to Lowry Memorial Presbyterian Church. Thirty-four students were suspended, and it was reported that one student who “cursed the school principal” was expelled for the remainder of the school term. That student was Ritter.

That same day, classes resumed across town at Bowman, with Principal Jack G. Heisler announcing that no further demonstrations would be tolerated. After lunch, approximately 100 students staged a sit-in outside Principal Heisler’s office. After a threat of suspension, a small number returned to class while 85 others were escorted by police outside the school to board buses that would take them home. These students were suspended for three days. A number of other students boycotted school in support of their suspended classmates. Three of the suspended students refused to return to class when their suspension ended; they were expelled (some newspaper articles list the number of expelled students from Bowman as five). A large number of students continued to boycott classes, though it seems they did not face repercussions.

On April 18th, lawyers for the NAACP charged that four expulsions, including Ritter from Anson and three students from Bowman, were a violation of the students’ Constitutional rights and asked for an immediate hearing to be held before the board of education. By this point in time, Ritter had enrolled at JR Faison High School, though he would later attend (and graduate from) Bowman.

Excerpt from The Charlotte Observer, 19 Apr 1968 [Gaston Edition]

On April 23rd, The Anson Record reprinted a statement submitted to them by “The Parent Body of Anson County”, which was made up of numerous parents of Black children in the county. In this statement, the parents state that they felt forced to keep their children out of school for protection. They claimed that in the aftermath of the sit-ins, walkouts, and suspensions that numerous white men (not police officers) stationed themselves on and around the school grounds, some of them visibly armed with weapons. They also claimed that their children had been repeatedly searched for weapons while white students were not (and a specific claim that one white student found to be in possession of a knife was allowed to keep it), that police maced their children when escorting them off school grounds two weeks earlier, that an all-white police presence had been installed inside at least one school to “take over school discipline”, and, interestingly, that the flag at Anson High School had originally been at half-mast the Monday following King’s murder, and that “someone raised it”, citing that as the reason for the walkout and, almost certainly, the incident that led to Ritter’s expulsion. They also brought up Principal Heisler referring to himself as a “nigger lover” on television, stating that they should be referred to as “American Negroes” and his usage of the slang term was not appreciated.

On Tuesday, April 30th, the Anson County Board of Education began a hearing at the request of Julius L. Chambers, attorney for the four expelled students and their parents or guardians, including Ritter. After three hours of Chambers cross-examining Bowman Principal Heisler, it became apparent that the hearing would be rather time-consuming, and Chambers made a motion that the students be reinstated pending the outcome of the hearing. The School Board, sitting as a quasi-judicial body, denied his motion and Chambers announced that he would take the matter to court.

Moving forward, it appears that Ritter and one of the other three children were no longer a part of the case. As previously mentioned, Ritter had enrolled in another high school almost immediately after his expulsion from Anson, so perhaps he decided to simply move on and accept his fate. It seems he then turned his focus primarily to athletics.

In the fall of 1970, Ritter was listed in various sources as between 6’2” and 6’4” and weighing either 253 or 254 pounds, and he anchored the offensive line at Bowman in his senior year. He also lettered in wrestling and track & field. The News and Observer (Raleigh) named Ritter a member of the All-East 3-A football team, as selected by eastern North Carolina coaches. Less than two months after receiving that honor, Ritter won the heavyweight division of the District 7 Wrestling Tournament held at Independence High in Charlotte. Ritter had entered the tournament undefeated and as the top seed in his weight class.

After graduating from Bowman that spring, Ritter went to Fayetteville State University, where he was a starter on the football team’s offensive line all four years. He graduated with a degree in Political Science. While this fact has been well-documented, looking at it in conjunction with his experiences in the spring of 1968 gives it new light. Was Sylvester’s interest in political science borne out of these circumstances, or had it been there all along?

While some sources list him as being drafted by the Houston Oilers, it is more likely that he was signed by the team as a non-drafted free agent. He was cut by the Oilers after an injury and played for a semi-professional league in North Carolina. The following year, he was signed as a free agent by the Green Bay Packers. Again, it appears an injury led to him being cut by the team. One person who knew him well says Ritter claimed he quit the team after his first exposure to the bitterly cold weather in Green Bay.

After returning to North Carolina, Ritter was working for the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Department and met a co-worker who refereed part-time for Ron Martinez’s IWA promotion. He was eventually steered towards wrestler Sonny King with the intent of being trained as a professional wrestler. After a few months of wrestling sporadically for the struggling outlaw IWA promotion, Ritter had very brief stays in 1977 in the McGuirk/Watts territory, in Knoxville for Ron Fuller, and in west Tennessee for Jerry Jarrett. He then went to Nick Gulas’ territory, where an apparent snafu on the part of Gulas led to Ritter being introduced initially as “Leroy Rochester” and Gulas sticking with that ring name for him.

The following year, after a brief stint in Germany where he crossed paths with Bruce Hart and Dynamite Kid, Ritter went to Calgary to wrestle for Stampede as “Big Daddy Ritter.” First teaming with (and later feuding with) a young Jake Roberts, Ritter improved significantly in the ring and, perhaps more importantly, in interviews. Jake told Ritter that his father (Grizzly Smith) was going to be involved in a new promotion opening up in Louisiana and Mississippi and the two both finished up in Stampede and made their way south. Ritter arrived shortly before the split between Bill Watts and Leroy McGuirk and was re-christened as The Junkyard Dog. He worked as a heel and teamed frequently with Pork Chop Cash for the first couple of months, feuding with Charlie Cook & Hercules Ayala. He was then briefly teamed up with Gino Hernandez as a beauty and the beast type of tandem with a comedic twist where both men thought they were the “beauty” of the team. This was the first time Ritter was teamed up with a white wrestler in Mid-South Wrestling, but it would be far from the last.

In fact, this had been a frequent occurrence dating back over a decade. The first Black wrestler to work the circuit full-time was Tom Jones in 1969. Jones teamed up regularly with Tarzan Baxter at first, and later found success teaming with Billy Red Lyons. In 1974, Arman Hussian frequently teamed with wrestlers such as Ken Mantell and Grizzly Smith. A few years later, Ray Candy was partnered with Steven Little Bear as a regular tag team. Perhaps it was felt this would make the wrestlers more palatable or acceptable to the predominantly white wrestling fans. As the promotion expanded further into Louisiana in the 1970s, more and more Black fans began attending the shows, with New Orleans being a prime example. It has been said that this was one of the root causes of the split between McGuirk and Watts, with Watts truly understanding the potential of catering to this new segment of fans, whereas McGuirk did not seem to be pleased with the increased diversity of crowds.

The decision not just to turn Junkyard Dog babyface, but to push him as the top babyface in Mid-South, was said to have been met with skepticism if not outright mockery by other wrestling promoters. Watts was unfazed by this, and as history has shown, likely had the last laugh.

Junkyard Dog turned babyface in an angle where Gino announced he was dumping JYD as his partner in favor of Ernie Ladd. In short order, JYD saved babyface Buck Robley from an attack by The Freebirds (Michael Hayes & Terry Gordy). The feud between those two teams has attained legendary status over the years, primarily due to the storyline where JYD was “blinded” by Hayes. The angle resonated with fans regardless of the color of their skin. When Junkyard Dog stepped back in the ring two months later to try and get revenge against Hayes at the Superdome (in a dog collar match; as JYD was still “blind”, this would enable him to keep Hayes close, to “feel him”, to “smell him”), a huge crowd of close to 30,000 fans paid $183,000 to see it.

As previously mentioned, a Black wrestler teaming up with a non-Black wrestler was nothing new. What was new, however, was how Junkyard Dog’s friendship with fellow wrestler Ted DiBiase was portrayed. The two were never a full-time tandem in Mid-South, as JYD had been with Robley, Dick Murdoch, Mike George, and Mr. Olympia, but their friendship was brought up from time to time. It wasn’t drilled into people’s minds, merely spoken of on occasion. That friendship wasn’t just a storyline fabrication either; the two were very close outside the ring. Sylvester Ritter really was the best man at DiBiase’s wedding. So when DiBiase turned heel on JYD in the fall of 1982, it wasn’t just a “wrestling angle” to the fans; it was a friend stabbing another friend in the back.

While Sylvester Ritter’s journey to become the King of New Orleans transcended skin color, it was hard to fully escape from the Black vs. white dynamic. Racial undertones were often lying just beneath the surface (and sometimes clearly above the surface) of JYD’s angles in Mid-South; this was standard fare for professional wrestling for decades. What was new, however, was how he appealed to ALL wrestling fans in a city with its’ own tricky history on racial issues. In 1965, the AFL All-Star Game was moved from New Orleans to Houston on two days’ notice when several Black players (including future professional wrestler Ernie Ladd) organized a boycott in the wake of experiencing outright racism from taxi drivers, restaurants, and clubs throughout the city upon their arrival a few days before the game was to be played. So it might have been somewhat surprising when in 1982, less than two decades later, the Times Picayune did a poll to see who the most popular athlete was amongst readers; The Junkyard Dog finished first. Dave Meltzer of The Wrestling Observer Newsletter wrote: “Between 1980 and 1983 with JYD on top, it is probable that no city in North America drew as many fans to pro wrestling as New Orleans.” Considering his time growing up in a newly desegregated small-town school system and the racism that he experienced first-hand, it’s fascinating to see him acting out a morality play about it years later. At the same time, his drawing on those real life experiences may partially explain why he was so damn successful at it.

(Note: much of the research for this story was culled from various contemporary newspapers [see below]; while there are some gaps in the historic narrative, everything presented today reflects the official record)



References:

NEWSPAPER ARTICLES

The Anson Record [Wadesboro] news.google.com/newspapers?nid=LnJLeQ70pnUC
“School Pray-Ins Reported.” 9 Apr. 1968, p. 1 
“Sympathy Causes Boycott.” 16 Apr. 1968, p. 1
“Parent Body Gives Stand.” 23 Apr. 1968, p. 1
“Attorney To Meet Board.” 23 Apr. 1968, p. 1
“School Board Declines To Reinstate Students Expelled Here April 8th.” 2 May 1968, p. 1

The Charlotte Observer [Gaston Edition] www.newspapers.com/paper/the-charlotte-observer/3189/ (subscription required)
Holton, Ray. “Negroes Boycott Bowman.” 10 Apr. 1968, p. 1B
Holton, Ray. “NAACP Asks Hearing in Anson.” 19 Apr. 1968, p. 1B
“Anson Negroes End Boycott.” 20 Apr. 1968, p. 1C
“Judge Defers Ruling.” 8 May, 1968, p. 20A
Holton, Ray, “Judge Denies Petition To Reinstate Two Girls Suspended From Anson’s Bowman High School.” 14 May, 1968, p. 1B

The News and Observer [Raleigh] www.newspapers.com/paper/the-news-and-observer/3272/ (subscription required)
“170 Negro Students Boycott Anson School.” 11 Apr. 1968, p. 10 


BOOKS/JOURNALS

Klein, Greg. The King of New Orleans: How the Junkyard Dog Became Professional Wrestling’s First Black Superstar. ECW Press, 2012.
Meltzer, Dave. The Wrestling Observer Newsletter, 15 Jun. 1998.


WEBSITE ARTICLES

Graves, Neil. “When Racism Drove the AFL All-Star Game out of New Orleans.” The Undefeated. 27 Jan. 2017, https://theundefeated.com/features/when-racism-drove-the-afl-all-star-game-out-of-new-orleans/
Mills, Thomas. “A Brief History of Local Terror.” PoliticsNC. 9 Oct. 2017, www.politicsnc.com/a-brief-history-of-local-terror/
Momodu, Samuel. “The Pearsall Plan (1956-1966).” BlackPast. 31 Aug. 2016, www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/pearsall-plan-1956-1966/
Scarborough, Imari. “Pushing for Equality: 2017 is 50th Anniversary of Anson County Segregation Lawsuit.” The Anson Record, 5 Feb. 2017, ansonrecord.com/news/4344/pushing-for-equality-2017-is-50th-anniversary-of-anson-county-segregation-lawsuit















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