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Gallery of Ironmen: Melvin Wells

Melvin Wells battled racism on and off the bodybuilding stage.


Opportunities for young African-American men were scant in the early days of bodybuilding, but one man, Melvin Wells, proved that greatness could prevail even though racism and injustice conspired to defeat him. Wells was born in Alabama on February 2, 1919, but the family moved to Buffalo, New York, when Melvin was still a child. From an early age he was fascinated by any heavy weight, but before he was 23, he saved up enough money to send off for a set of barbells. That's when he began proper workouts.

After a couple years Wells was ready to show the world what he had accomplished. In 1948 he went down to York, Pennsylvania, for a bodybuilding show. What the spectators saw that evening was a huge man. At that time Melvin stood 5'10' and tipped the scales at 207 pounds, but his proportions were what stunned most people. His chest was thick and his lats were wide, and they were accentuated by his 31-inch waist. Even so, he was most renowned for his massive back and arms.

Wells placed second at the '49 Mr. America competition. Many believed that he was unbeatable in 1950, but in spite of his massive physique, Melvin received another disappointing second-place finish. He was awarded trophies for best back, best arms and most muscular, and yet the top prize went to a white rival. That was too much for Wells, and he walked off the stage in disgust.

Was there racial prejudice at work? Many clearly thought so. Wells felt very bitter about the situation. He believed that he'd never been awarded the top prizes simply because he was black. There are many who agree that he should have been the first black Mr. America, but it was not to be, despite his virtual domination in the contests he entered.

Understandably, Wells zeal for competing waned considerably as a result of his treatment by the white bodybuilding establishment. He died in relative obscurity on March 17, 1994. Melvin Wells was one of the first and finest of African-American musclemen to compete in major bodybuilding competitions. He will always be a champion. IM

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