George Dixon, 1st Black world champion in boxing history, earns national designation

·3 min read
George Dixon of Africville, N.S., was the first Black world champion in boxing history and the first Canadian to win a world title. (Wikipedia - image credit)
George Dixon of Africville, N.S., was the first Black world champion in boxing history and the first Canadian to win a world title. (Wikipedia - image credit)

George Dixon, the world-renowned boxer from Africville, N.S., is being recognized by the Canadian government more than a century after his death as a person of national historic significance.

Dixon, who died in New York in 1908 at the age of 38, was the first Black world champion in boxing history and the first Canadian to win a world championship.

"Dixon is an important historical figure in Canada and representative of the integral role Black Canadians played in building this nation and its history," said Steven Guilbeault, the minister responsible for Parks Canada, in a recent news release.

Dixon was born in 1870 in Africville, a thriving Black community nestled along Halifax harbour that was demolished by the city in the 1960s.

He competed mainly out of Boston as a bantamweight and featherweight, and was famous for his speed and stamina — once fighting for 70 rounds. He has also been credited with inventing shadowboxing.

As a Black fighter, Dixon also battled racism. He used his fame as a world champion to create opportunities for other Black boxers, and he was known to contribute his earnings from fights in support of Black communities.

"Racism and racial injustice deeply affected Dixon's personal and professional life, but his popularity and success in the boxing ring gave him a platform to combat discrimination and support Black communities," said Liberal MP Greg Fergus, chair of the Parliamentary Black Caucus, in a news release.

"Historic designations like these help raise awareness of Black history in Canada and the unique challenges faced by Canadians of African and Caribbean descent."

National historic designations recognize significant persons, places, and events in Canada's history. Designations are typically commemorated with a bronze plaque installed in a location that is closely related to the subject and accessible to the public.

The designation process is largely driven by public nominations.

Jeorge Sadi/CBC
Jeorge Sadi/CBC

A champion for the champion

Dixon was nominated by Nadine Williams, an art educator, poet and published author from Jamaica who currently resides in Ontario.

She said historical designations for Black people are few and far between, so she's trying to change that.

"I took it upon myself to just constantly seek out events, people and sights that can be nominated," she said. "The process, it's a little long, but it's been very rewarding."

Williams has nominated others in the past, including Viola Desmond, who was designated in 2017.

"Oftentimes, when we think of Black people in Canada, we're perceived as newcomers," she said. "[Dixon] was born in Canada, so that's important, as well, for us to see that our roots are very deep."

Mark Crosby/CBC
Mark Crosby/CBC

Williams said Dixon's story had a sad ending, with the celebrated champion dying in poverty, but his accomplishments live on. The racist barriers he broke down helped many others to succeed.

"There was still a lot of triumph and that is to be celebrated," she said.

'A sense of pride'

Rola Salem, spokesperson for Parks Canada, told CBC News in an email a location for the plaque will be decided in the next few months.

Williams said she can't wait to see the plaque with her own eyes and she hopes others who see it, especially Black Canadians, understand that they too have a place in Canada's history.

"A sense of pride is what comes to my mind ... in knowing that we have contributed to the fabric that is Canada today."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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CBC

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