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African American Boxer Billy Clarke in Modernizing Guatemala  

Alvis E. Dunn

In the final decades of the 19th century the Central American nation of Guatemala represented some intriguing employment and entrepreneurial possibilities from the point of view of US citizens. The lure of coffee cultivation, mahogany harvesting, even mining was real. Additionally, the promise of employment building an inter-oceanic railroad resulted in significant numbers of African Americans journeying to Guatemala. The relocation offered good pay and many apparently believed that it would also take them to a place where Jim Crow racism was not the predominant and limiting factor that it was in the United States. For at least one of those men however, railroad work was not the primary enticement to the region. By 1893, such alleged opportunities in Guatemala had attracted the black athlete, entrepreneur, and entertainer Billy A. Clarke. During his two years in the country, with his sometime business partner and sparring mate, Rod Lewis, also an African American, Clarke operated a gymnasium where he taught the “Art of Pugilism,” staged several prize fights, and, for a time, captured the imagination of the capital city with the example of modern, imported entertainment and professional sports. Between 1892 and 1898, Guatemala was ruled by, first president, and later, dictator, General José María Reina Barrios. A globalizer enamored of modernization, European architecture, and North American technology, the environment fostered by Reina Barrios attracted not only contractors and African American workers from the United States to build railroads but also other foreigners who made for the Central American nation, bringing the outside world to the mile-high capital of Guatemala City. Into this setting came Billy A. Clarke, drawn by the same baseline possibilities of solid work and the prospect of less Jim Crow as his African American railroad compatriots, but with the additional promise that his individual skills as a fighter and promoter might reap even bigger rewards. The story of Clarke in Guatemala is one of race, identity, and creative self-promotion. Building an image that combined ideas of the exotic and powerful African with ideas of the North American armed with “know-how” and scientific fighting skills, Clarke became a Guatemala City celebrity and was eventually known as the “Champion of Central America.”