Ike Hayes is almost forgotten in Butte and in the sporting world, but at one time he enjoyed a standing as one of the state’s best pugilists. He established his reputation as a boxer while sparring in North Dakota in 1888. After working the circuits for a few years, he settled in Helena, where he worked, trained, and raised a family that grew to three boys and two girls. In a few years, Ike would be the heavyweight champion of Montana. One newspaper clipping described in detail his training regimen: running, weight lifting, skipping rope, and a turn at the air ball. He trimmed down to 175 pounds of muscle for one fight, “a magnificent specimen of the modern gladiator.” But there was much more to Ike than boxing.
How do we learn about the lives of individuals using the archival record? In order to create a biography for a person, we search city directories, birth and death records, school censuses, tax records, cemetery records, and more. These records are created in large part to count people, but some of them tell us a little about the individuals themselves.
The Butte newspapers contain thousands of mentions of Ike Hayes. We can find him in the Butte city directory which lists his occupation and address by year. His children were counted in the school census record; the one shown below is from 1906. He is listed in the Great Register as a voter. It is through these sources that we can learn about one of Butte’s nearly forgotten citizens.
Ike Hayes was African-American, born in Missouri in 1863; his wife Lizzie was born in Minnesota in 1873, according to Federal Census records. He first appears in Butte’s city directory in 1902, where he is listed as a porter at many of the city’s bars, hotels, and wholesalers. His family is listed at six different addresses between 1902 and 1930, which was not uncommon in Butte. The only dwelling that remains standing is 601 S. Idaho Street, across from the historic Shaffer’s Chapel, an African Methodist Episcopal Church that was a center of Butte’s black community in the early 1900s.
We know from reading hundreds of newspaper accounts that Hayes enjoyed a stellar reputation in the ring, earning the respect of athletes and sports writers alike. Believing fighters were getting shorted in their gate receipts, he joined with another boxer to propose a Glove Handlers’ Protective Union to benefit Butte’s prizefighters. Once organized, they intended to join the American Labor Union, insisting on 70% of the gross receipts for the main events, and not less than $25 for preliminaries. Minutes from the 1902 and 1903 American Labor Union conventions do not show that the union was ever formed, and no further mention was made in the paper.
By 1904, Ike Hayes was acknowledged in the Butte Inter Mountain as “the Nestor of the colored pugilistic fraternity of Montana.” He mentored and trained many of Butte’s boxers, often in a Meaderville gymnasium. He was seen as a friend and mentor not only to fellow boxers, but within the Butte community. At the behest of a family friend, Hayes swore a complaint against “an alleged Lothario” whose relations with the woman’s 13-year old step-daughter “were not what they should be.” Hayes stepped in to retrieve the girl and return her home. Four years later, his own daughter eloped and Hayes impressed upon the court that the bride, being just 14, would not be returning to her husband, no matter how nice Judge Bourquin thought he might be. Hayes stood up for many in Butte’s black community.
In 1910, Hayes partnered with John Handy to operate his own athletic club, saloon, and pool room at 47 East Galena, where he could train and mentor young boxers. He contemplated running for office on two occasions: once for sheriff, and once for state representative, which means he was a registered voter.
He did not run, and we only know that he failed to file his application for representative, but we don’t know why. His presence in Butte was significant enough that twice the sporting community rallied to organize fundraisers to assist Hayes as his health began to fail. Health insurance had not yet been created, and “passing the hat” was a way in which the sporting community could support its own. He earned the nickname Professor Hayes from local sportswriters, and newspaper clippings inform on the reputation he enjoyed in Butte until the end of his days. Following his long athletic career and two auto accidents, Hayes’ health finally gave out and he died on October 1, 1930, of heart failure.
Today we can recall Ike Hayes as an outstanding boxer and a leader in the Butte community. However, as a man of color at the turn of the last century, he was subject to the systemic racism of his time. Like many black men of his generation, he worked in service as a porter for a number of Butte businesses: Browne’s Buffet, Sig Schilling Cigar Co., the Doctor Bar, the Marquette, and later the New Finlen Hotel and the Silver Bow Club. The Montana newspapers treated him with respect when reporting about his actions both in and out of the ring, with the exception of one local sports gossip who wrote under the pen-name “Willie B. Goode” for the Butte Inter Mountain. Goode peppered his stories with the vernacular language often ascribed to blacks at the turn of the 20th century, offering derogatory imitations of the athletes he quoted. Goode may have even had a hand in subduing the creation of the boxers’ union, calling the pugilists “spoiled by the good treatment accorded them. . . .they have been so well-treated that they have come to the conclusion they are absolutely indispensable.”
Although he was respected as an individual by both blacks and whites in Butte, Hayes was still a member of a community that was marginalized by white society. In spite of his status as a local celebrity, he was called by the names often used to describe men of color: the articles describing his prowess in the ring are peppered with the words “coon,” and “boy,” commonly-used descriptors from that era.
Boxing attracted fans of all races and ethnicities, and the matches were not segregated: Hayes fought hard against men of all colors, and although he didn’t win all of his matches, he never gave up. So while public documents may count his children and document his domiciles and employment, it is the newspaper accounts that enlighten us about the life of a black athlete in the early 10th century.
~Kim Kohn, with editorial assistance from DeHanza Kwong, Butte-Silver Bow Public Library
Sources consulted for this article include the Polk City Directory for 1902-1930; School Census, 1902-1910; Great Register 1910; Tax Assessment cards; Day Books; Sanborn Insurance maps; death records; cemetery records; and historic newspapers accessed via Newspapers.com