Dec 04, 2023, 06:27AM

The Untimely Murder of White Noble

The tragic death of an unheralded Black wrestling legend.

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Aside from the most learned professional wrestling historians, everyone present for a weekly wrestling trivia contest is likely to be stumped by the mention of the name White Noble, and draw a blank as to its significance. Few can name any pre-1950s holders of “Negro wrestling championships,” let alone one whose years of peak viability were in the 1920s. The extent of such ignorance is stretched when the wrestler in question was abruptly killed on what was by all accounts an ordinary Saturday evening in Taylor, Texas.

In some parts of the pre-1940s United States, there were so few Black wrestlers active in the industry that promoters could get away with saying that athletes like Seelie Samara and Reginald Siki were the only Black wrestlers operating in the business. Then again, given the number of historical disappearing acts that have occurred—where alltime Black wrestling greats like William “Gorilla” Parker and “Black Panther” Alex Kaffner seemed to suddenly disappear—it’s no wonder why a scant few Black wrestlers prior to the era of Bobo Brazil are venerated to an extent that is commensurate with their accomplishments.

On the other hand, there are several cases where the established Black wrestling legends were well-known by their personal names, but tragedies wiped them out. Included are the first Reginald Siki, the original Rufus Jones, and “Gentleman” Jack Claybourne. However, the tragic tale of White Noble precedes the untimely departures of all three of these wrestling greats by roughly 20 years.

Born on July 12, 1892 to Sam Nobles and Rebecca Taylor, William Nobles became one of the first Black wrestlers to regularly entertain audiences in his home state of Texas, and in integrated wrestling matches no less. Living in Taylor, Texas, Nobles spent at least a decade working as a local butcher, as he is listed as such in both the 1920 and 1930 U.S. Censuses. In his draft registration from World War I, which didn’t give exact heights and weights, Nobles was described as tall and stout; later wrestling advertisements would fix his weight at 190 pounds.

When Nobles first emerged on the Texas wrestling scene as “White Noble,” it was in the early-1920s. It was quickly established that Noble was the protege of another Taylor resident, the legendary Elmer “Pet” Brown. Brown was a famous Texas professional wrestler who captured substantial media attention when he won perhaps the most respected version of the world middleweight wrestling championship from Mike Yokel in May of 1914.

Subsequent reports would reverse the roles of Brown and Noble and allude to Noble as the trainer of Brown; this is unlikely, as Brown was four years Noble’s senior, and was active in wrestling for more than a decade prior to Noble’s first recorded bouts.

Brown died under tragic circumstances in 1923 while reigning as the world middleweight champion. At the site of his construction work camp, Brown was shot to death by constable L.J. Starkey, who was in the process of harassing a Black construction employee of Brown’s (which the reporter unfortunately referred to as “his negroes”) who’d reportedly been involved in unlicensed gambling. Starkey was acquitted of murder, as the jurors discounted the eye-witness testimony of the Brown’s employees—all of whom were Black—and favored Starkey’s self-defense claim, which rested on Starkey’s belief that the famous wrestler could easily have broken his neck if he managed to get a firm grasp of him.

Because Brown was known to have been so familiar and friendly with the Black residents in and around Taylor, it would’ve come as little surprise that he provided a path for a local Black man into the wrestling industry. By 1925, Noble was declaring himself to be the light heavyweight colored wrestling champion of Texas, but since there were so few Black wrestlers in Texas, Noble operated predominantly in his hometown area of Taylor, wrestling against white competitors like Speedy Johnson, Joe Montana, and Jack Bentley.

Although reports of Noble’s match results are hard to come by, there’s a respectable amount of information we can glean of his style simply by analyzing the details that are available. In one of his main-event contests against Bentley, Noble emerged victorious from the 42-minute bout in two consecutive falls, and his two submission wins—by body scissors and armlock respectively—are indicative of a wrestler known for succeeding through technical prowess rather than brute force.

Furthermore, as if 42 minutes wasn’t a satisfactory amount of time to devote to a main-event wrestling presentation, details from some of Noble’s other in-ring exhibitions reveal a wrestler who had few qualms, if any, about extending himself to the limit in order to send crowds home happy. In 1925, Noble wrestled Joe Montana to a two-hour draw to prepare Montana to face Greek wrestler Gus Pappas. Then, in his own bout with Pappas, Noble sparred with the multi-time American middleweight champion for three hours and 45 minutes before the time limit expired and the referee rendered a decision in favor of Pappas.

Although evidence indicates that Noble’s activities in Texas were primarily confined to the Taylor region, he wasn’t exclusive to Texas; he traveled as far as California to wrestle. For his entire multi-month tour of California in 1929, the 190-pound Noble was hailed as the Negro Heavyweight Champion of America as he feuded in Los Angeles with Al Baffert—a young actor-wrestler who’d already appeared in two of what would eventually be more than a dozen Hollywood films.

Despite his out-of-state travels, Noble apparently maintained his employment as a butcher, and was still stated to have been active in that role for the City Abattoir of Austin on the day his life was taken. At 9:15 p.m. on Saturday, March 18th, 1933, Noble was admitted to the Doak & Stromberg Clinic-Hospital in critical condition. He had a bullet lodged in the left side of his abdomen.

“He was shot in the right arm just above the elbow, the bullet penetrating his right side and passing through his body, lodging in his left side above the waist,” read the report in the following day’s edition of the Taylor Daily Press. The shooting incident was reportedly sparked by an argument between Noble and an unauthorized tenant at his rental property, 30-year-old Mary Felix, who’d moved into a house owned by Noble on Bland Street without his permission. Noble was conscious when he arrived at the hospital and described to authorities what had happened from his perspective.

“Who gave you authority to move into this house?” is what Noble explained he said to Felix when the two were standing on the front porch of the house. The 4’11” Felix subsequently produced a .32-20 pistol and fired three shots, with only one of the bullets striking Noble. Felix was quickly taken into custody and sat confined to a jail cell while Noble fought for his life. Nearly 12 hours later, Noble succumbed to his injuries. Ten years after the shooting death of world champion Pet Brown, the same fate had befallen Brown’s most promising pupil.

Felix was immediately charged with murder and held on a $1500 bond. Funeral services for Noble were held just three days later at Mount Calvary Baptist Church, and his body was interred at City Cemetery. On May 25th, slightly more than two months after Noble’s death and burial, Mary Felix was sentenced to just five years in jail for his murder, with no further explanation provided for the relative leniency of the sentence.

Once the murder, burial and sentencing had come and gone, so did the legacy and potential historical placement of a man who played a pioneering role in the legitimization of Black wrestlers in Texas and elsewhere. In the aftermath of Noble’s foray into wrestling, the segregation of Texas wrestling events would proliferate, and Black wrestlers would primarily be relegated first to their own matches, and later to their own promotions, all while seemingly enduring a greater amount of public ridicule. One Texas district attorney suggested that participants in “negro wrestling matches” ought to be “promised a watermelon each to stimulate the action.”

Then again, it’s unlikely that White Noble or many other professional wrestlers of the early-20th century had any clue that they were engaged in activities that would one day be regarded as historically significant. Understandably, this would’ve been especially true for wrestlers who were active during a period of time when survival was far from assured to anyone. The Great War gave way to The Roaring Twenties, which led directly into the heart of The Great Depression, and which was immediately supplanted by the World War II era.

Putting food on the table would’ve superseded any thoughts of historical considerations like all-time rankings and cultural legacies of Black wrestlers. In fact, it was the act of ensuring the security and availability of his rental property—or sustaining the flow of food to his family’s table during one of America’s most challenging eras—that would tragically result in White Noble being taken off the table for any future discussion of Black wrestling pioneers, both in his era, and any that followed it.


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