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The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

Written by Geoffrey C. WardAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Geoffrey C. Ward


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: August 04, 2010
Pages: 544 | ISBN: 978-0-307-49237-1
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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In this vivid biography Geoffrey C. Ward brings back to life the most celebrated — and the most reviled — African American of his age.

Jack Johnson battled his way out of obscurity and poverty in the Jim Crow South to win the title of heavyweight champion of the world. At a time when whites ran everything in America, he took orders from no one and resolved to live as if color did not exist. While most blacks struggled simply to exist, he reveled in his riches and his fame, sleeping with whomever he pleased, to the consternation and anger of much of white America. Because he did so the federal government set out to destroy him, and he was forced to endure prison and seven years of exile. This definitive biography portrays Jack Johnson as he really was--a battler against the bigotry of his era and the embodiment of American individualism.


The Pure-Blooded American

In the spring of 1910, Halley’s comet returned to the heavens after an absence of seventy-five years. Some believed it a sign from God that the world was about to end. Nearly everyone saw it as a momentous event, and during the week of May 18, when astronomers predicted the earth would pass through the comet’s tail, adults and sleepy children all over the country stumbled out of their homes at night to see if they could get a glimpse of it.

On the Lower East Side of New York, thousands of tenement dwellers, mostly immigrants and their families, filled the streets to peer up at the cloudy skies, while on the roof of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel uptown, Speaker of the House Joseph G. Cannon led two hundred tuxedoed guests attending the annual dinner of the National Association of Manufacturers in a champagne toast to the comet’s passing. In Memphis, Tennessee, separate all-night revivals were held for white and black believers awaiting Judgment Day. In Chicago, panicked householders blocked their doors and windows against deadly gases they believed the comet would release.

And early one morning, at the fashionable Seal Rock House on Ocean Beach at San Francisco’s western edge, guests and staff members alike gathered on the sand beneath the stars, listening to the rhythm of the surf and waiting to chart the comet’s brilliant course above the sea.

But the hotel’s most celebrated guest—the most celebrated black man on earth—remained in bed in his suite on the second floor. A member of his entourage had slipped up the stairs a few minutes earlier and tried to rouse him, but the heavyweight champion of the world had ordered him out of the room. He saw no need to get up. Over the coming centuries there would be hundreds of comets, he said. “But there ain’t gonna be but one Jack Johnson.”

Like a good many of his claims, this one was both outrageous and entirely accurate. He had, after all, battered his way from obscurity to the top of the heavyweight ranks and won the greatest prize in American sports—a prize that had always been the private preserve of white combatants. At a time when whites ran everything in America, he took orders from no one and resolved to live always as if color did not exist. While most Negroes struggled merely to survive, he reveled in his riches and his fame. And at a time when the mere suspicion that a black man had flirted with a white woman could cost him his life, he insisted on sleeping with whomever he pleased. Most whites (and some Negroes as well) saw him as a perpetual threat—profligate, arrogant, amoral, a dark menace, and a danger to the natural order of things.

The real Jack Johnson was both more and less than those who loved or those who hated him ever knew. He embodied American individualism in its purest form; nothing—no law or custom, no person white or black, male or female—could keep him for long from whatever he wanted. He was in the great American tradition of self-invented men, too, and no one admired his handiwork more than he did. All his life, whites and blacks alike would ask him, “Just who do you think you are?” The answer, of course, was always “Jack Johnson”—and that would prove to be more than enough for turn-of-the-twentieth-century America to handle.

Johnson visited Paris for the first time in June of 1908, before sailing to Australia and his long-delayed battle with the heavyweight champion Tommy Burns. It may have been then that he and an unknown French journalist began laboring together over the manuscript that would become the first of his autobiographies.* The language of its opening passage seems stilted, especially in translation, but the thoughts are unmistakably Jack Johnson’s:

When a white man writes his memoirs . . . he anxiously begins with the history of his family from earliest times. It seems the higher one ascends the more interested one is in it. And I think that most authors embroider their genealogy. Basically, none of it interests anyone other than family members.

But I don’t want to exempt myself from this ancient custom and wish to say a few words about my genealogy.

Our [Negro] memories are handed down from father to son. Whites don’t think so, but we blacks are also proud of our ancestors and during long days and still longer nights, though we knew neither schools nor books, we still transmited memories of past centuries. I don’t doubt that the stories have been modified over time, but the salient facts remain. If some parts are merely fables it doesn’t matter much. Who can tell among the white stories what is fact and what is fable?

Facts about Johnson’s ancestry are hard to come by, and he was himself a cheerful fabulist when it came to retelling his own life. But the first thing he wanted people to understand about him was that because his enslaved forebears had arrived in America long “before the United States was dreamed of,” he was himself a “pure-blooded American.” And because he knew that that was what he was, he saw no reason ever to accept any limitations on himself to which other Americans were not also subject.*

Why he insisted on acting that way at a time when most American Negroes were relegated to second-class citizenship remains the essential mystery of his life. No amount of sleuthing will ever fully solve it, but a few clues may lie half-hidden in what little we know of his boyhood.

He was born Arthur John Johnson in Galveston, Texas, on March 31, 1878, the year after the last Union troops were withdrawn from the former Confederacy, leaving freed blacks to fend for themselves.† His parents, Henry and Tina (known as Tiny) Johnson, both ex-slaves, did just that. She was from either North or South Carolina; government records and her son’s various accounts differ. Henry was born in Maryland or Virginia sometime during the 1830s; after serving as a civilian teamster attached to the U.S. Army’s 38th (Colored) Infantry, he settled in Galveston in 1867. His son loyally remembered him as “the most perfect physical specimen I have ever seen.” In fact, Henry stood just five foot five and was severely disabled by an atrophied right leg, the result of exposure to cold and rain and snow in the trenches at Petersburg, Virginia, that had caused the “disease of rheumatism” to distort his right knee—or so his attorneys would later claim in one of several unsuccessful bids he made for a veteran’s pension.

Despite his injury, despite the fact that he could not read and that neither he nor his wife could write, Henry Johnson never failed to find ways to support his family. He worked as a porter in a saloon, then as a school janitor, finally as supervising janitor for Galveston’s East School District. His wife took in washing. Both were faithful Methodists, and Henry sometimes helped with the preaching on Sundays; Jack Johnson’s glib tongue and enthusiasm for public speaking may have been an inheritance from him.

The Johnsons had nine children, four of whom lived to adulthood. They kept them all fed and clothed, saw to it that they attended at least five years of school, and somehow managed to put enough money aside to buy a plot of land at 808 Broadway at the island’s eastern end, and build their own single-story home.

Jack was the Johnsons’ third child and first son, and from the beginning seems to have been the focus of his family’s attention. He was bright, talkative, and filled with energy, but, as he and his mother both remembered, he’d also been frail as a small boy and was still so thin at twelve that the family physician warned he might be tubercular. Like his sisters and brothers, he was expected from early childhood to help keep the family going. He swept out schoolrooms to ease his father’s burdens. “Those devilish brooms were taller than I was,” he remembered. “It was sure the joy of my early life to grow taller than the broomstick.” And he got an early morning job, riding along on a milk wagon to keep an eye on the horse when the milkman got down to make a delivery. Every Saturday night, he was paid ten cents and a brand-new pair of bright-red socks, of which his employer evidently had a limitless supply.

Otherwise, Jack remained at home with his older sisters, Lucy and Jennie, and his younger siblings, Henry and Fannie and an adopted brother named Charles. He was especially close to his mother, who told him again and again he was “the best boy in the world” and assured him he could do anything he wanted if he wanted it badly enough.

Jack Johnson seems to have needed little encouragement along those lines. He saw himself as someone special from the first—someone set apart, not subject to the limitations holding others back. His mother liked to recall what he told her one evening when he was still a small boy doing his homework by lamplight. As she told it,

Jack was reading in the Texas history book about great men, and he turns around to me and he allowed as how he was going to be a great man himself some one of these days. And I says, “Shucks, boy, what you talking about? What you think you’re going to be—president?” He said, no, he wasn’t figuring on being president, but he expects he’ll be something what’ll be just about as big. And that child sure was talking a parable that night.

Johnson would remain deeply devoted to Tiny Johnson until her death, lavishing her with gifts and telling reporters she had been responsible for all his success. After her death, he delivered a pulpit talk called “The Influence of My Christian Mother” before black congregations in several cities. In it, he urged his listeners to “keep your mother’s image before you all the time. Remember what she taught you when you was a youngster, and there is nothing you can’t accomplish.”

That message was reinforced by the city (and the neighborhood within that city) in which Johnson grew up. In 1929, long after his boxing life had ended, he cooperated in writing a series of syndicated articles about his career. In one, he argued that the outstanding black heavyweights of that era, Harry Wills and George Godfrey,* would never reach the heights he had reached, in part because they were from the Deep South and therefore “grew up with the thought implanted in their minds, through generations of tradition, that the COLORED man was not equal to the WHITE. The inferiority complex which was planted in their grandfather and his father has never been shaken off and never will be shaken off.”†

Johnson was a southerner, too, of course, and had also been raised in a city where, as he said, “the whites were in control.” But Galveston was different from most southern communities. It was a seaport and, like its rivals, Mobile and New Orleans, took a more relaxed view of racial separation than did the inland towns and cities of the South. All sorts of people came and went at the waterfront. “You had all walks of life, races, creeds, colors . . . in here,” a longtime resident remembered. “We were segregated but it wasn’t as bad as other places in the state of Texas. . . . That was a unique thing about Galveston. Negroes and Caucasian people were poor and lived in the same neighborhood, ate the same food, suffered the same problems.”

No part of Galveston Island was more racially mixed than the Twelfth Ward, in which Johnson grew up. Its most important citizen was Norris Wright Cuney, who, as the son of a Texas planter and his slave mistress, was regarded as black, not white. At a time when Negro political power was eroding all over the South, Galveston’s “sable statesman” managed to hold on to his for some fourteen years. As alderman, labor organizer, collector of customs for the district of Texas, Republican National Committeeman, and leader of the racially mixed “Black and Tan” faction of the state Republican Party, he was at the time of his death in 1896 perhaps the most powerful Negro officeholder in the country—and a constant reminder to neighbors like young Jack Johnson that a black man need not limit his horizons.*

The public school Johnson and his brothers and sisters attended was segregated, but the streets and alleys through which they raced once school was out were not. “From the time I was old enough to play on the Galveston docks I played with a gang of white boys,” Johnson recalled.

We had a great gang, too, and every kid in Galveston looked up to the 11th Street and Avenue K gang. That was us. My best pal and one of the best friends I have now is Leo Posner, a white boy who was the head of our gang down there. So you see, as I grew up, the white boys were my friends and my pals. I ate with them, played with them and slept at their homes. Their mothers gave me cookies, and I ate at their tables. No one ever taught me that white men were superior to me, and when I started fighting I fought just as enthusiastically against them as I once had fought on Leo Posner’s side.†

Fighting of any kind had seemed alien to Johnson as a small boy. He avoided quarrels, he recalled, ran home rather than face neighborhood bullies, and depended on his older sisters to protect him until he was twelve.

It was in that year . . . when I first discovered that I could fight just a little bit. While going home from school one day, I fell into a heated argument with Willie Morris, one of my school mates. We had just reached my home, and I noticed [a neighborhood woman whom the children called] Grandmother Gilmore standing in the front yard. As I looked in Grandmother Gilmore’s direction Willie struck me in the jaw. Now at that time Willie was much larger than I, and his unexpected blow to my jaw rather stunned me for a few seconds, and upon getting my bearings my first impulse was to run, and perhaps I would have had it not been for Grandma Gilmore. She had witnessed Willie strike me and when she saw that I did not show fight, she called out to me, “Arthur, if you do not whip Willie, I shall whip you.” Now this assertion from Grandmother Gilmore made a different aspect upon the whole thing, it caused me to lose all thought of retreat. At once I figured that I’d much rather give Willie a whipping than receive a whipping myself . . . so immediately I sailed into Willie and whipped him. This was my first fight and I won it by in-fighting and clinching. I clinched Willie and in the breakaway I struck him in the eye which ended the fight.*

From the Hardcover edition.
Geoffrey C. Ward|Author Q&A

About Geoffrey C. Ward

Geoffrey C. Ward - Unforgivable Blackness

Photo © Goverdhan Singh Rathore

Geoffrey C. Ward is the author of seventeen books, including three focused on FDR: Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt, 1882–1905; A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt (which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Francis Parkman Prize of the Society of American Historians, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize); and Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship Between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley. A longtime collaborator with Ken Burns, he has also won seven Emmys and written twenty-seven historical documentaries for PBS, either on his own or in collaboration with others, including The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.

Author Q&A

Q:Could you tell us where the title, Unforgivable Blackness, comes from?

A:It’s from a 1914 editorial by W. E.B. Du Bois in which he tried to account for the vicious hostility directed toward the heavyweight champion by so many white people. Johnson was a fair, sportsmanlike fighter, he said, and his morals were no worse than those of celebrated white athletes. The only reason he could find for what he called “this thrill of national disgust’ was Johnson’s race. “It comes down then, after all,” he wrote, “to this unforgivable blackness.”

Q:Jack Johnson might have avoided much of the trouble he found himself in if he had not fraternized with or married white women. Why do you think he refused to do that?

A:Jack Johnson recognized no limits imposed by others. He embodied American individualism in its purest form; nothing – no law or custom, no person black or white, male or female – could keep him from doing what he wanted to do. “I have found no better way of avoiding race prejudice,” he once said, “than to act with people of other races as if
prejudice did to exist.”

Q:What about Johnson’s life fascinated you the most?

A:I wanted to understand how a black man with only a fifth grade education, born to former slaves in post-Reconstruction Texas and growing to manhood in a white-run world in which black inferiority was taught in schools, preached from pulpits, reiterated on editorial and sports pages, could have determined to ignore it all – and managed to get away with it, a least for a time. No one can ever fully explain it: like Lincoln and Edison and Louis Armstrong, Johnson was wholly self-invented. But Unforgivable Blackness does include a wealth of detail about his rise that has appeared nowhere else and shows how extraordinary Johnson was.

Q:In 1908, Jack Johnson became the first African-American to win the heavyweight championship and one of the most controversial figures of his time. Yet, many outside of boxing circles have never heard of him. Why do you think that is?

A:Sadly, Americans have short historical memories. I think also that the racism that permeates Jack Johnson’s story remains an embarrassment to us – at least it should be an embarrassment. But I hope people who read the book will get a greater understanding both of this flawed but amazing man and of the complex country which mistreated him but also made it possible for him to use his gifts and grit to make himself the most celebrated black man on earth.

Q:Some black people, including Booker T. Washington, were almost as critical of Johnson as whites were. What were his feelings about this? Did he ever feel betrayed?

A:Johnson was a realist. He delighted in being a hero to millions of African Americans, but he never wanted to be a racial role model or a civil rights spokesman. At the height of his popularity among blacks –after he defeated Jim Jeffries, the Great White Hope, at Reno in 1910 – he said he hoped they would stick by him but feared that like the French who had turned against his hero, Napoleon Bonaparte, they would desert him when times got lean. He did resent the preachers and politicos who tried to tell him how to live his life.

Q: Patronizing white sportswriters routinely stereotyped Johnson as ignorant as well as “uppity.” It’s clear from your book that he was nothing of the kind.

A:Johnson was enormously intelligent and intellectually curious. He held three patents, played the bass viol and never went anywhere without his Victrola and stack of classical records. He studied the life of Napoleon (with whose rise to power from total obscurity he identified), and wrote – or helped to write – four autobiographies. He was also so skilled at negotiating for his own fights (something few fighters, black or white, have ever been equipped to do) that prominent white managers shrank from facing him over the bargaining table.

Q:You are presently part of a committee working to have Jack Johnson exonerated. If you are successful, he will be the second man to have been pardoned post-humously. What would you say are the strongest arguments for this happening?

A:I drew extensively on Johnson’s Justice Department files to show that his conviction for violating the Mann Act in 1913 was racially motivated -- and that his own efforts to obtain a pardon were crushed by government bureaucrats who knowingly made further false allegations against him. That sort of injustice, it seems to me, should not be allowed to stand.

Q:You also wrote a documentary of the same name which will air on PBS next year. How did that process differ from that of writing the book?

A:I love writing documentaries. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have worked on so many of them over the past twenty years. But for me there is nothing quite like making the sort of historical discoveries you can only experience when digging deep into biographical materials for a full-scale book, nothing to compare with making one’s way down corridors where no one else’s footsteps have sounded before. Writing Unforgivable Blackness provided me with plenty of that kind of excitement, especially when I began to work my way through the never-before-consulted autobiographical manuscript found among his prison papers at Leavenworth. I had no idea when I began this book that Johnson would be such an eloquent spokesman for himself.

From the Hardcover edition.

Praise | Awards


"Unforgivable Blackness is likely to be the definitive biography of Jack Johnson . . . A significant achievement. Geoffrey Ward provides an utterly convincing and frequently heartrending portrait of Jack Johnson." --Joyce Carol Oates, The New York Review of Books

"A formidable accomplishment . . . Ward has successfully brought this deep and colorful personality, this insufficiently understood and altogether amazing man, back to life." --David Margolick, The New York Times Book Review

"Brings [Johnson] to life in all his vulgar, splendid glory. Engrossing and definitive, Unforgivable Blackness is a great biography of a great and utterly fascinating subject." --Allen Barra, The Philadelphia Inquirer

"An engaging and well-researched popular biography . . . Throughout the book, Johnson's energy never flags, and neither does our interest. [Ward] has drawn a portrait of a fascinating figure, whose oversized personality fills every page." --Bruce Schoenfeld, Washington Post Book World

“This remarkable book is at one and the same time a rousing story, a terrific biography, and first-rate history. With immense skill, Geoffrey Ward has not only brought Jack Johnson back to life but has provided a telling window onto what it was like to be a great black athlete in early-twentieth-century America.” —Doris Kearns Goodwin

“Geoffrey Ward’s Unforgivable Blackness is a stunning exploration in the unbelievable bigotry of whites in early-twentieth-century America.” —David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of the two-volume biography of W. E. B. Du Bois

From the Hardcover edition.


WINNER 2005 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award

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