Posted on 12/07/2013

Photo taken on August  1, 1924

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African American Women
Aurelia Wheedlin
Emma Maitland
Vaudeville Act
Tea for Two Girls
circa 1924

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Photo replaced on December 23, 2013
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Their Act Packed a Punch

Their Act Packed a Punch
In costume Aurelia Wheedlin and Emma Maitland in their Tea for Two skit.

In 1924, Maitland and Wheeldin joined Billy Pierce’s New York-based dance company. The two were part of the first African-American group of dancing girls to appear at the Moulin Rouge in Paris where they had a six-month contract to perform the revue “Tea for Two.” The show was a hit and was said by one newspaper to be “knocking the Parisians cold.

While in Paris Maitland (130 pounds) and Wheeldin (116 pounds) began training with professional boxer, Jack Taylor. Taylor, nicknamed the Nebraska Tornado, was a heavyweight, who over the course of a sixteen-year professional career faced Sam Langford, Battling Siki, Max Schmeling, Primo Carnera, among others. Taylor was one of many African-American boxers who journeyed to the French capital, drawn by the popular myth of French racial tolerance and the country’s celebration of black prizefighters. Once the pair learned to box, they brought their ringwork to the stage.

After the production at the Moulin Rouge ended, Wheeldin and Maitland stayed in Paris and staged their own production called the “Tea for Two Girls” which included three rounds of boxing. The performances were well received, and the two booked tours in France, Belgium, Italy, Holland, Switzerland, and Austria. The two played dates oversees for almost two years without an agent, manager, or promoter. Little is recorded of their experiences while working and traveling in Europe other than reports stating that the two were “perfectly content and happy.” In Milan, the two appeared in an all-white revue, where one paper notes they were the only black women in the city.

Upon their return to the United States in 1926, Wheeldin and Maitland continued as boxers and theatrical performers. A journalist reviewing their act stated that “[t]he girls are putting on a real fight with their act, and shake each other up rather badly, at times drawing blood . . . They fight only six minutes, twice each night, but according to Miss Maitland, those six minutes at times seem like two hours." Similarly, after one boxing performance in 1927, a reporter noted that Maitland was “nursing a black eye and a cauliflower ear given her by Miss Wheeldin. ‘The art of our act is not to get hit,’ said Miss Maitland, ‘but we were doing our act on a bad floor.’”

It also appears that Maitland boxed competitively outside of the theatre. In 1928, the black newspaper Pittsburgh Courier reported in an article entitled “Wields Wicked Left” that Maitland was heading to Cuba to box and that she had just returned from a “successful ring siege in Mexico. The powerful left hand of Miss Maitland has helped her win bouts.” This entry suggests that Cuban and Mexican women were also competing in boxing, which opens up further possibilities for readings of the past. It is also notable that In the late 1920s the pair began to utilize the title of world champions—Maitland in the junior lightweight division and Wheeldin, as the world bantamweight champion.

In 1929, Maitland and Wheeldin returned to New York and musical theatre. The pair performed with an all-black cast in the revue, “Messin’ Around.” During this production, they were billed as the only two licensed female boxers in America. In what was considered the most unique feature of the revue, Maitland and Wheedlin staged a boxing match. White critics claimed the boxing was original in what they otherwise described as a lackluster production.

Aurelia Wheedlin retired from boxing and the theatre in 1940 when she married. Emma Maitland continued in the theatre where in 1940 she played the role of a black maid in a white theatre production. One newspaper reported that on her nights off from the play she performed as a “lady wrestler.” In 1943, the Atlanta Daily World stated that female pugilist Emma Maitland had given her collection of photographs, newspaper clippings, and testimonials to the Schomburg Collection of the New York Public Library, noting that female boxers are rare enough but that “a Negro female pugilist is almost unique.” Unfortunately, the New York Public Library, and the Schomburg Collection in particular, have no record of receiving Maitland’s collection of boxing materials.

Bio/Image: Seeing What Frames Our Seeing: Seeking Histories on Early Black Female Boxers by Cathy van Ingen