Black Family Martial Arts Celebrates 90th Anniversary

In the winter of 1914, a fourteen year old boy ran away from his Pennsylvania home intent on seeing the world and to accomplish this he would lie about his age and join the Army. He was a large boy, larger than most men in his community. You had to b 16 years old or have your parent’s permission in those days to enlist.

He scraped together the few belongings he possessed, walked the three miles into town and caught the morning train to Pittsburgh. The city of Pittsburgh in 1914was a sprawling city of street cars, steel mills and a few tall buildings as were to become the trend in architecture in the next 20 years. For a boy/man it was fascinating and busy compared to the quiet farming community he was accustomed to.

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Pittsburgh PA in 1914

He found the Army recruiter after walking through half the city. The Sergeant was a career soldier with over 20 years of hash marks appearing on his uniform. He looked up at my grandfather and asked, “What can I do for you son”?

My grandfather answered “I want to join up” and he was handed a form to fill out. Upon its completion the recruiter began to talk.

“You say your name is Lee Black and your 16 years old – is that correct” he asked.

“Yes sir, I’m from Pithole, PA outside of Franklin”, my grandfather answered.

“The pay is $50 a month after basic training, uniforms, three square meals a day and a bunk”, said the Sergeant.

“Thank you where do I go from here”? My grandfather asked.

“Just across the road we have special rates at the Perry House, it has guest quarters. You’ll be there two nights it been arranged for you to share a room with six others heading to Basic Training. Eat in the dining room and let them know you are billeted via the Army and don’t cause any trouble. That means no drinking, whoring and fighting or I’ll personally bounce your ass back to where you came from – is that clear? The Sergeant stood and faced my grandfather.

“Yes Sergeant – very clear and thank you” he replied.

Your browser may not support display of this image. Lee Black in WWI US Army photo 1916

Basic training was grueling, the food mediocre and the sleeping conditions uncomfortable. My grandfather went on to become a clerk typist at the Presidio in San Francisco CA. At the age of sixteen he let slip that he had committed an indiscretion lying about his age to enlist. It was taken under advisement that he be summarily discharged from active service in the Army. As he was now of legal age he could reenlist in the US Navy. Having prior military service he would be stationed again at the Presidio and hold the position of clerk typist. Same job, same location just different branch of the S Armed Forces.

My grandfather requested overseas duty in Asia known as the “brown water Navy” in China and was reassigned in 1918 to US Navy Yangtze River Patrol. The Yangtze Patrol was called upon to defend American lives, property, and commerce along the river and to support American foreign policy in the Far East.

Serving time in Hong Kong and Shanghai eventually stationed on the USS Elcano, a river gunship that was captured from Spain. He served on the patrol boats from 1918 to 1923.

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The USS Elcano and her crew 1918

Life in Shanghai was rough, crime rampant and the lifestyle of the US servicemen sometimes took a wrong turn. Many men turned to drinking and prostitutes to pass the time an others of more moral character just served their time.

In 1918 my grandfather having one too many drinks became enamored with a young Chinese girl in a waterfront tavern and decided to meet her. He tried talking with her but she didn’t speak English or pretended not to. At the end of the evening he saw her leave and went out to walk with her – she hurried her pace and kept saying something he couldn’t understand and in the ten minute walk he found himself lost in a maze of side streets and alleyways. The girl had entered a house just off a small road and my grandfather knocked on the door only to hear “You Go!” shouted behind him. He turned to see a diminutive Chinese man in his 40’s.

Walking down the steps the man again repeated his words and moved toward my grandfather menacingly. He then shouted “She is no bar girl – my daughter – go!” he shouted. My grandfather feeling his alcohol pushed the man away as he got too close and for that effort was kicked backward 8 feet into the dirt. He got up and began to defend himself. Within seconds the fight ended with a broken wrist, bruised ribs and bruises on my grandfather’s face. His fight was with Tan Chiang Chen a Shanghai Bak Mei Kung Fu (pronounced “baahk meih” – White Eyebrow practitioner.

Returning a week later more healed he brought gifts of food and cloth as a way of apology. He was confronted again but the man who accompanied my grandfather explained it had been a terrible mistake and he was here to make amends. The apology was accepted and my grandfather learned Mr. Tan spoke perfect English and in proceeding months he visited often to discuss the philosophy of Bak Mei, Tai Chi Chuan and Pakua. He learned rudimentary movements by watching training sessions with Mr. Tan’s sons and in time worked out to hone the skills he would practice until his death in 1963.

In 1936 he was transferred to Japan working as an attaché and again sought out martial arts training this time in the form of Judo. The embassy staff had been training in self defense with members of the Osaka Police Department since 1934 with Okuda sensei. His training was twice a week. He was later introduced to Dai Ito Ryu Aiki Jujutsu under Masao sensei a disciple of Takeda Sokaku. He practiced martial arts in Japan until 1938 when he was transferred to Honolulu Hawaii and later went to war against the Japanese in World War Two.

In the early 40’s he taught his own sons Judo and they too went off to serve their country. My father sent to Japan in the US Navy in the late 40’s where he studied Judo and briefly karate. He practiced intermittently but gave it up to concentrate on his career and family.

In 1958, my grandfather introduced me to the practice of Judo in Narita, Japan. I was not yet 5 years old but would play with the other boys of near my age learning break falls, tumbling and other agility skills until we were old enough to understand that the moves we learned were the basis of all preliminary skills taught in Judo.

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In proceeding years I would study various systems of jujutsu, karate and kobudo which would eventually span more than 50 years. Today at age 57, I teach a few days a week. Once it’s in your blood it never goes away.

I’m proud of my families dedication upholding the honor an traditions of the great men who were our mentors and hope the family system will be carried on after my passing by those sensei I have trained.

Thank you for your patience in reading this article.

Ric Black

San Dai Soke

Bunbu Ichi Zendo Kai

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