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“jeff, It’s Up To You!”
When the Negro Jack Johnson fought Jim Jeffries at Reno in 1910, more than the world heavyweight championship seemed at stake. To the many alarmed by Johnson’s unsavory reputation, Jeffries seemed nothing less than the “Great White Hope”
February 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 2
“Because Johnson is black and this dog is yellow,” the Negro answered. Then the fight started, but it was not one-sided, as Coleman had friends nearby.
In Muskogee, Oklahoma, a man who claimed to be a second cousin of John L. Sullivan attacked two Negroes with a knife but was seized by the police before he could do any damage. There was rioting in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Wilmington, and Norfolk, resulting in many injuries and hundreds of arrests; the entire town of Keystone, West Virginia, was in the control of a Negro mob until late in the afternoon of July 5. All told, two white persons and nine Negroes met death, the Negro victims including two killed by their own people. Observing these lamentable events across the gap of more than fifty years, it is possible to theorize that the trouble did not come so much from the undeniable circumstance that Johnson was champion, as from the glorying over whites in which the blacks, perhaps understandably, indulged.
At Reno, the series of happenings that triggered the rioting had come to a confused end. As Rickard dropped his arm, Johnson said to Sig Hart, “I think I’ll give one glove to Corbett and one to Jeff.” But Corbett hurried Jeffries away without waiting for any gestures from Johnson. With his closed eye, bloody and swollen face, and fumbling movements, Jeffries looked like the loser he was. Corbett and Farmer Burns helped him from the ring; then he pulled himself together and stalked away. One has the feeling that Jeffries was entitled to some recognition of his gameness; but his performance had been so poor, and his defeat such a disappointment—and to many, such an unpleasant surprise—that there were no cheers to warm his heart as he left the arena.
But the situation held at least enough tension to start some long-lived rumors. One still generally believed today has it that Sig Hart hustled Jack out of the arena to an automobile and drove a fast fifty miles into the desert to a special train waiting at a lonely stop. The fact is that Johnson walked out unmolested and went to The Willows, where he put on a blue silk suit and a crimson bow tie. Etta had watched the fight from one of Rickard’s box seats for ladies; she now changed her costume, putting on a fresh pongee dress and picture hat, and joined Jack for a ride through the center of Reno in the back seat of an open touring car. Johnson appeared to be in no danger, and the crowd was apathetic. It seemed that those who had an emotional as well as financial investment in Jeffries were still in shock. Indeed, when Jack’s car halted in the crowd on the street in front of the Golden Hotel, many persons came up and shook his hand. He left Reno at 9:50 P.M. in a special car attached to a train bound for Chicago. The car was fitted with a buffet, phonograph, and piano; Jack was happy and chatted genially with Hart and others. He was observed to be consuming “his share of the champagne” but not to be drunk. Over the desert sped the car, its lighted windows passing with a jangle of ragtime and a swirl of dust that settled under the stars.
Jim Jeffries also was riding in a private car, but heading in the opposite direction, for San Francisco. He was attended by his wife, Berger, Farmer Burns, Corbett, and several reporters. Morose and melancholy, Jeffries took no liquor; surprisingly, he spoke with frankness to the newspapermen. “I could never have whipped Jack Johnson at my best,” the former champion said. “I couldn’t have hit him. No, I couldn’t have reached him in a thousand years.”
This time Jim Jewries’ retirement was permanent; he returned to his farm in California, and there he lived to a prosperous old age. The victorious Jack Johnson was hardly so fortunate. The years that followed were more notable for his misadventures with the law than for his exploits in the ring. Women were his undoing. In September, 1912, Etta Terry Duryea Johnson shot herself at his Chicago cabaret, the Café de Champion; she was in her grave scarcely two months when he married another white girl, Lucille Cameron. The next spring Johnson was charged with and convicted of violating the Mann Act (that is, transporting a woman across a state line for immoral purposes), largely on the testimony of his old friend Belle Schreiber. He promptly fled the country, one step ahead of his jailers. Two years later, on April 5, 1915, Jack Johnson finally lost his title. In a bout held in Havana, he was floored after twenty-six rounds by an other “white hope,” the 250-pound giant, Jess Willard.
Not until 1920 did the first black champion end his exile, surrendering himself to federal authorities at the Mexican border; he served a year and a day at Leavenworth—where, ironically, the warden was the former governor of Nevada, Denver S. Dickerson. For the rest of his life, Johnson made a shabby and unspectacular living from carnival side shows, vaudeville, and an occasional fight. In 1945, when another great Negro boxer, Joe Louis, held the heavyweight title, Jack Johnson fought his last exhibition; he was then sixty-eight years old. That April he died in an automobile accident: to the very end he never lost his penchant for fast cars. At the funeral in Chicago, a minister of his race delivered what may well have been Johnson’s truest epitaph: “Jack struck a double blow when he became heavyweight champion. If we hadn’t had a Jack, we wouldn’t have a Joe now.”