Over the course of many weekends in the library at the Minnesota Historical Society, Jake Wegner had been able to piece together the story of Harris Martin's life. Martin's death, though, was another matter.
Known as "The Black Pearl,'' the Minneapolis boxer was a black star in a white man's world. His fearless, relentless style made him a sensation in the 1880s, as he won the Colored Middleweight Championship of the World in a bout that lasted two hours. When Martin died in 1903 at age 38, more than a thousand people came to the wake -- but a century later, no one knew where he was buried.
Wegner made it his mission to find out. A newspaper story about the funeral said the body was taken to Forest Cemetery in Maplewood, but it had no record of him. So Wegner went to the cemetery -- now called Forest Lawn Memorial Park -- and combed through its books, where he found the name "Hannis Morton.'' A groundskeeper helped him locate that grave marker, now obscured by a heavy layer of soil and grass. A little more digging revealed the true name of the man under the surface: Harris Martin, the lost Black Pearl.
The tale of Martin's discovery helps explain why the Minnesota Boxing Hall of Fame inducted its first members Tuesday night, some 60 years after the idea was hatched. It needed someone like Jake Wegner -- as hard-headed, persistent and driven as the Black Pearl -- to take up the cause. A year after he got it rolling, a sellout crowd of more than 250 people attended the induction banquet Tuesday at Minneapolis' Jax Cafe, where Martin and 10 others were honored and remembered.
"Boxing has a level of dementia all its own,'' said Wegner, the hall's president and founder. "You retire, and people forget who you are. We wanted to make sure these guys' names would be written in boxing immortality in Minnesota from this day forward.
"A hall of fame is something that will outlive us all. Giving these guys the proper recognition was long overdue.''
A lifelong boxing fan, Wegner, 34, is also a history buff. That led him to his hobby of researching and writing about the sport in Minnesota, where accomplished fighters such as Tommy Gibbons, Glen Flanagan and Scott LeDoux made their names and homes.
Some of them are members of boxing's world and international halls of fame. Many more weren't well-known outside of Minnesota, but they were integral to the state's rich boxing lore. Though the idea of a state hall of fame had been kicked around since the 1950s, no one had ever taken the initiative to create one.
Wegner thought all of them deserved a lasting honor, so last year, he began calling people who shared his passion and determination. He formed a seven-member board and established the hall of fame as a nonprofit organization. Ten others with longtime ties to the sport were invited to be voters. All are volunteers, including Wegner, a sales director and married father of four who lives in Winthrop.
Once the inaugural class was announced in July, the often skeptical boxing community understood the hall had actually, finally come to life -- and the response struck Wegner like a left hook.
"Whether 20 people or 220 people showed up, we were going to go ahead and do it, because right is right,'' Wegner said. "The tickets went so fast, we had to change from our original venue to a bigger one. We started getting a lot of donations and some sponsors. I got calls, and the board got calls, from boxers who were asking us, 'When am I getting in?' It just showed that when you give people something they can get behind, they respond to that.''
The first class includes boxers from all eras, as well as people who made a mark on the sport outside the ropes. Wegner said he hopes to establish a permanent site for the annual induction ceremony, as well as a place where an exhibit could be displayed. The hall does have a home base on the Internet (www.mnbhof.org), with detailed biographies of the inductees.
That includes the story of Harris Martin. No relatives came forward to accept the award on his behalf, so Wegner did it -- ensuring, once again, that the Black Pearl would not disappear into the past.
"Finding his grave was a small-time boxing mystery,'' Wegner said. "I figured if I didn't do it, who would? With the hall of fame, we can almost suspend time. We can make sure these guys aren't forgotten.''
Rachel Blount • firstname.lastname@example.org