By Nicole D. Batey,
Special to the AFRO
Leon Bailey, a trailblazer in U.S. Navy Wrestling, was the first African American to integrate Navy wrestling and win an individual title at the AAU New England Six-State Championship in 1964. His life story and accomplishments are shared in his self-published book, Leon Bailey: The Dream.
Born in May 1943 in Baltimore City, Bailey came from humble beginnings.
He was raised in Cherry Hill, which at that time was a new housing development for mainly Black families and veterans returning from World War II. Segregation and redlining were prominent in the city. Bailey lived in South Baltimore with his three other siblings, Lorraine, Carl, and George, and his mom, Mildred Toms, who was a single mother and domestic worker. Bailey describes old Cherry Hill as a beautiful place to live where neighbors helped and looked out for each other.
“Cherry Hill was so nice. I had so many friends and we would just go from court to court, street to street. There were so many trees there—cherry, apple. It was just beautiful,” says Bailey.
Bailey and his family left Cherry Hill in 1955 when he was 12 and moved further east in the city after his mother became the manager– and eventual owner– of a bar and restaurant there.
Not far from where he lived, Bailey was introduced to the world of wrestling at the McKim Community Center, joining its first wrestling team. Due to segregation, he could only go on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when other Black residents were allowed.
“The center started a wrestling team in 1955. I was a short, stocky guy with a muscular build who liked to play with weights and speed bags. I wrestled there from time I was 12 until I attended high school,” said Bailey.
He continued with his love for wrestling at Carver High School, playing on both junior varsity and varsity teams. After graduation, he joined the U.S. Navy in pursuit of his dream to either box or wrestle on behalf of his country. However, Bailey’s dream was deferred for almost a year and a half. Upon completion of basic training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in North Chicago, he was assigned to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., working what he describes as unfulfilling jobs. He longed to be in combative sports.
“That time was really disappointing because I didn’t really have any interest in becoming an officer. All I wanted to do was wrestle or box,” said Bailey.
He was then transferred and assigned to the USS Essex aircraft carrier stationed in Rhode Island, however, the carrier was on tour in the Mediterranean, so he stayed at the Transit Barracks at Quonset Point Naval Air Station. There, he met Commander Josiah Henson, a former U.S. Naval Academy wrestler and 1952 Olympian, who was starting a wrestling team. One fateful day while sweeping in the gym, Bailey saw a sign saying, “Wrestlers Needed” and reported to the designated location after work.
Bailey joined the team in 1963 and was the only African-American on the team for almost two years. His team wrestled against colleges and universities in the New England area including Boston, Brown, and Harvard, and every opponent Bailey faced was white. In 1964, he became the first African-American to win a title at the AAU New England Six-State championship, which held more than 100 entrants. In 1965, Bailey became the first African-American to coach a U.S. Navy wrestling team, after Henson was promoted to a new assignment.
What is impressive, is how he won the championship in spite of a severe knee injury that sent him to the emergency room after the tournament.
“I didn’t want to come in second place nor did I want my team to get a lower point number. I wanted to wrestle the match, hurt or not. When the whistle blew, before I knew it, it was all over with. That was one of my fastest pins that day—maybe because I was hurt,” recalls Bailey. “Being in the moment, after I pinned him, when the ref held my hand up, what came to my mind was all the stuff I had to go through—the pain, the practice, being the only Black
] on that team and winning that championship for the U.S. Navy. That was the moment I thought about all the stuff I had to go through from Cherry Hill and on, dealing with segregation and bigotry. I hold my
] up! Nobody can take that away from me!”
Bailey’s idea for penning his life’s story didn’t come until some time after he left the Navy. He wrote it as part of his legacy for his children and grandchildren, as well as inspiration for others who have their own dreams.
“This not my story, it’s God’s story—He gave it to me. I was sitting in my basement and looking at my shelf with all my awards, certificates, and everything, and I started crying,” said Bailey. “It makes me a little emotional even now. God told me to tell other people ‘do not give up on your dreams.’ Also, we all have a story to tell, all of us, and we need to tell our own stories.”
To purchase a copy of his book, Leon Bailey: The Dream, go to leonbaileynavywrestling.org.