Ethel Johnson
Birth nameEthel Blanche Wingo
Born(1935-05-14)May 14, 1935
Decatur, Georgia, U.S.
DiedSeptember 14, 2018(2018-09-14) (aged 83)
Columbus, Ohio, U.S.
Cause of deathHeart disease
Spouse(s)Leon Hairston (–2010)[1]
Professional wrestling career
Ring name(s)Ethel Johnson
Rita Valdez
Billed height5 ft 5 in (1.65 m)[1]
Billed weight115 lb (52 kg)[1]
Trained byMildred Burke[2]

Ethel Blanche Hairston (née Wingo; May 14, 1935 – September 14, 2018) was an American professional wrestler whose ring name was Ethel Johnson.[1][3] She debuted at age 16,[4] becoming the first African-American women's champion.[5][4] She was a fan favorite, billed as "the biggest attraction to hit girl wrestling since girl wrestling began."[5][6]

Professional wrestling career

Johnson started her training after her sister Babs Wingo, the first African-American woman to desegregate professional wrestling, in the 1950s, signing with the promoter Billy Wolfe. Their younger sister Marva Scott would later join professional wrestling as well.[4] In 1952, Johnson, along with her sisters worked three matches including a tag team match in the main event at Baltimore, Maryland, which drew the highest record crowd of 3,611 fans.[4] By 1954, Johnson and Wingo received top billing alongside Gorgeous George, after drawing 9,000 fans at the Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Missouri.[4] While touring Latin America, Johnson worked under the name Rita Valdez.

Johnson was known for her athleticism, being one of the first female wrestlers to perform a standing dropkick in her matches, as well as including a variation of the flying headscissors[1][2]

During her time in wrestling, Johnson faced popular wrestlers at the time such as June Byers and Penny Banner, and even challenging Mildred Burke for her NWA World Women's Championship.[7] Eventually, Johnson caught Stu Hart's eye and began working for his promotion Big Time Wrestling as well as wrestling for the Capitol Wrestling Corporation.[2] In her final years in wrestling, Johnson worked at American Wrestling Association, where her last match was against her sister Marva Scott, in 1976.[2]

Personal life

Johnson was born Ethel Blanche Wingo in Decatur, Georgia, to Gladys Chase and Clifford Wingo on May 14, 1935.[1] Johnson had two other wrestling sisters: her older sister, Betty (ring name: Babs Wingo), and younger sister, Marva (ring name: Marva Scott).

Johnson took her stage name to differentiate her from Betty, who became a professional at about the same time. They often wrestled each other, but many fans would not know that they were related.[1] Johnson said it was every women's wrestlers' dream to perform in Madison Square Garden, but women's wrestling was banned in New York during her prime.[4] She retired in 1977 without ever performing there.[6]

Johnson died of heart disease on September 14, 2018, in Columbus, Ohio. She was 83.[1][8]


Year Title Role Notes
2016 Lady Wrestler: The Amazing, Untold Story of African American Women in the Ring Herself Documentary

Championships and accomplishments


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Genzlinger, Neil (November 25, 2019). "Ethel Johnson, Early Black Wrestling Star, Is Dead at 83". The New York Times. Retrieved November 25, 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Greet, Jamie (February 1, 2018). "The Pioneers: Ethel Johnson: The First African-American Female Wrestler (VIDEO)". Last Word on Pro Wrestling. Retrieved July 12, 2023.
  3. ^ Gary, Marlan (21 September 2018). "Ethel Blanche Hairston". Archived from the original on November 26, 2019.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Erdman, Corey (March 23, 2018). "The Forgotten Story of the First Black Female Wrestlers". Vice. Retrieved November 26, 2019.
  5. ^ a b "Lady Wrestlers". Jet. Johnson Publishing Company. February 21, 1952. pp. 56–58. ISSN 0021-5996. Retrieved November 26, 2019.
  6. ^ a b Laprade, Pat; Murphy, Dan (2017). "Chapter 3: When Millie Met Billy: The Billy Wolf Era". Sisterhood of the Squared Circle: The History and Rise of Women's Wrestling. ECW Press. ISBN 9781773050140. Retrieved November 26, 2019.
  7. ^ Lindsey, Philip (February 12, 2019). "WWE's bewildering exclusion of first black women wrestlers". Diva Dirt. Archived from the original on August 17, 2019. Retrieved February 12, 2019.
  8. ^ "Ethel Hairston Obituary - Columbus, OH: The Columbus Dispatch".
  9. ^ "Colored Women's World Title".
  10. ^ "Ohio Women's Tag Team Title".
  11. ^ "Texas Colored Women's Title".
  12. ^ Garcia, Raphael (March 20, 2020). "Black History Month In Wrestling Spotlight: Ethel Johnson". Daily DDT.