JAIHOUSE THE FIGHTING ART OF SLAVES
Note: This article although it contains a small amount of historical data
is not meant to be a review of the slave trade in America. This information is
provided solely to give my reader an understanding of the conditions that
brought about the development of this art.
When several frightened, cold, hungry, and disheartened Africans gathered
to speak in a language foreign to them all no one was aware of the fruit their
conversation would bear. The first Africans to set foot on this soil brought
along with their muscle a vast amount of intellect. It was this intellect
that laid the foundation for what would become known as Jailhouse.
Jailhouse is a martial art that lies hidden within the nooks and crannies
of American history and African American culture. It was developed by a group of
people that possessed a love for what all Americans are known for worldwide and
that is freedom. I would consider the first slaves brought to the United States
the ancestors of this dynamic fighting art. It was this quest for freedom
and conditions of bondage which contributed to the birth of Capoiera in Brazil
and Jailhouse in the U.S.
Africa is a vast continent that is composed of many nations and languages.
All of these tribes have their own sciences and history which they pass down by
way of storytelling and dance. After reaching a certain age the candidates for
what I call "manhood training" were gathered together and taught skills which
the village elders considered vital to the survival of the tribe. Now
these lessons could include but were not limited to carpentry,fishing,
hunting,politics, history, religion, relationships, and martial sciences.
In the area of martial sciences, each village had its own specialty. There were
boxers,grapplers, leg fencers, and still others were stickfighters this was
dependent on the way the village made its living. for example, If the village
business was selling water the fighters would specialize in leg fencing because
they could not afford to drop the containers of their days work.
Unfortunately though, the relationships between many of these tribes dictated
that they would never be able to share this knowledge with each other and the
history of Africa still bears the scars of many tribal disputes. It is my belief
that the primary contributor to these wars was lack of communication. Unless you
spoke the same dialect, or another language in conjunction with your own, there
couldn't be any interplay between villages and this was how
misunderstandings(wars) were started. In bringing them to the United States
several things took place:
1. A common language was introduced to members of rival clans.
2. Animosity that existed between clans was destroyed, the enemy of my
enemy is my friend.
3. Slavery forced all Africans to view themselves as one people.
4. Those that survived the dreaded middle passage were bonded together
forever by the shared experience and it created a burning desire for
It was this last thing that contributed the most to Jailhouse. Individuals
that would have normally killed each other instead shared folklore, history, and
eventually martial arts with each other. It was understood that whatever their
former politics it was not as important as returning to the land from which they
were born. These former enemies gathered in holding pens, hence the word
Jailhouse, where they shared the deadliest secrets of war in the name of
freedom. It is this art that was passed down in secresy from family member to
family member not being limited to sex. It is well known through
historical accounts of individuals like Harriet Tubman that women could be just
as deadly as men. It was written that Harriet was a tough as any man and could
not be found unarmed, she carried two pistols. In her travels with the
underground railroad there were many instances where these skills must have been
put to the test, all of this in the name of freedom. It was also because of
freedom fighter Nat Turner's slave revolt in Southhampton County Virginia that
many people were forced to re-evaluate the institution of slavery in this
It should also be noted that boxing, as we view it, couldn't exist without
the contributions of many slaves and former slaves. For example while slavery
was still in full bloom, Bill Richmond gained his freedom and pioneered the
evasive movement latter made famous by fighter's such as Sugar Ray Robinson and
Mohhammed Ali in England. He became a fight promoter, trainer, and bar owner in
England while America still embraced slavery. He was also the trainer of the
First black to fight for the English heavyweight championship, Tom Molineaux.
Tom was born in Newport News Virginia and fought his way to freedom prior to his
fight with Tom Crib in England. It was the advanced counter moving
principles of the African arts which gave them the ability to evade and counter
, an ability that had not been previously displayed.
Jailhouse itself is like a multi-faceted diamond. It has many
variations depending on where and whom you study it from. However,
in forming the system which I call Rekibo(modern Jailhouse) I gathered those
techniques and principles that were the foundation or "nucleus" of all the other
forms. The nucleus of Rekibo(core techniques) consists of
hand,elbow/forearm strikes,gouges,stomps,sweeps/trips, lowline kicking,body
strikes, and grappling. These techniques combined with a thorough knowledge of
human physiology, physics, mathematics, advanced principles of movement, and
escape and evasion assured that the Jailhouse boxer was a well rounded fighter.
Capoiera and Jailhouse both have a heavy concentration on movement but the
philosophies differ. In Capoiera the tumbling and evasive techniques were
designed to take advantage of the vegetation that was abundant throughout the
countryside. A quick leap and a flip could carry the capoiersta to safety in the
heavy growth,this was not the case with Jailhouse. Jailhouse was a system
that had to be executed in the utmost secresy because discovery meant death. The
Jailhouse boxer's strategy was to quickly close and finish his/her opponent
before they could cry out. The emphasis was placed on closing and striking with
high impact techniques and then finishing with a choke hold. In
researching Capoiera and Jailhouse I have found a common thread in the
similarity of their names. The word capoiera was a name derived from the name of
the cages that chicken were transported to the market in and Jailhouse was
derived from the holding pens where human livestock were held until sold.
Consider that both arts were founded by a people in search of freedom, both were
praticed in secresy, and were birthed in the womb of imprisonment. I can only
guess at the knowledge these powerful men and women brought with them from the
horn of Africa but as a martial artist and a historian I can only continue
forward in my quest for the knowledge of self and truth.