Happy Birthday America! I know we haven’t graced the pages of the interwebs for quite some time, but it’s because we’ve been waving flags, camping out and having picnics, and celebrating various reasons to be proud of our country (well, except that last one, but you know what I’m getting at).
So on this, the fourth day of the month of July, we’re taking the opportunity to bring you not the scandal of a founding father or an illustrious politician, but rather the epitome of the actual idols in America: a celebrity athlete.
BUT WAIT, I know you’re thinking there’s a disconnect between the social progress made by our nation in the past week, and the inexplicable hero-worship of someone who tosses balls for a living. WELL HOLD ON PATRIOTS, CAUSE IT’S ABOUT TO GET SCANDALOUSLY PROGRESSIVE UP IN HURR. And regular scandalous too, don’t worry.
For you see, on this day in 1910, Jack Johnson, an African American heavy-weight boxer, knocked out his white rival, Jim Jeffries, sparking race riots across America.
The bout was deemed the “Fight of the Century,” in which formerly undefeated Jeffries came out of a six-year retirement to fight Johnson, the current heavy-weight champion. The total winnings (split 75/25) were equivalent to over two million dollars in today’s spacebucks, and tickets to the 20,000 seat sold-out spectacle were being scalped for almost triple their original price. President Taft and Arthur Conan Doyle had been approached to guest-referee. The match was held in Reno in 110 degree heat, and scheduled for three 45-minute rounds. Jeffries had very little interest being the representation of the white race in taking down this troubling black upstart, and originally refused the fight multiple times, but was eventually persuaded (I’m assuming by that two million dollars, but, hey, I could be wrong). All in all, it was a B-fucking-D.
Racial tensions were running high, and no alcohol (normal) or guns (psst, lame) were allowed within the arena. By the fourth round, it was clear that the older Jeffries was going to lose, but the blood sport continued for another eleven rounds, with Jeffries being knocked down twice, and nearly KO’d. However, the NYTimes remarked at the time that never had a fight been so one-sides, but that Johnson had fought fairly throughout.
Here would be a nice moment to pause and give a bit of background on Jack Johnson. The son of former slaves from Galveston Texas, he could read and write, which was plenty scandalous for the time. Well, that, and HE LOVED DATING WHITE LADIES. AND PROSTITUTES. OPENLY.
He reportedly had so many biddies on rotation in and out of his hotel room, that a keen-eyed reporter once asked him how he did it, to which Johnson replied “eat jellied eels and think distant thoughts.” And I mean, come on, are we gonna blame them? The man was beautiful.
According to Johnson, though no record survives, he first married another African America woman named Mary Austin, back in Texas in 1898, though it appears they separated by 1902. He then took up with a black prostitute from Philly named Clara Kerr, who lived with him in California until she ran off with his friend, taking most of his clothes and jewelry. He tracked them down in Tuscon and had Clara arrested for burglary, but apparently they reconciled and started living together. This lasted until he couldn’t find any money-making fights, and she up and R.U.N.N.O.F.T.
During a fight tour of Australia, he had a fling with white Alma “Lola” Toy, which scandalized the Sydney press. From this point on, while he did not exclusively see white women, he said publically said he would never marry another woman of color because of the heartaches he had suffered with Mary and Clara. I mean, that’s kind of like saying you’ll only eat apples because you ate two rotten oranges… Whatever dude, just pick some better fruit next time.
When he returned to America in 1907 he took up with Hattie McClay, a white prostitute from Manhattan. Their relationship was plagued by societal outrage–hotels refused to admit them, and several matches and even a parade were cancelled because Jack was travelling with a white woman who he referred to as “Mrs. Jack Johnson” (though they were never legally married). By 1909 they were separated, but continued to bang on the sly until 1911, when Jack paid Hattie $500 for the return of all their steamyass correspondence. A tale as old as time, true as it can be, barely even friends, because one is a prostitute, not-so-unexpectedly.
He next started seeing Belle Schreiber, another woman of easy virtue at an exclusive, all-white brothel in Chicago. At least five women were fired by the madams there for sleeping with Johnson, but Belle hung on and became Jack’s new main lay. Even during his first legal marriage, Johnson and Belle continued to play bang-around-the-rosie, ’cause, you know, why not? Now Belle was a tenacious little miss thang, and much like a bad penny (though come on, she’s at least a six or seven), just kept comin’ back. More on that later.
Ahem, so, after that lengthy bonerlude, back to boxing.
For years, Johnson predominantly fought other black boxers, eventually becoming the World Colored Heavyweight Champion, and gaining the nickname, “The Galveston Giant.” While whites would fight black boxers, the World Heavyweight Championship was reserved for whites only. In 1902, Joe Gans became the first African American World Lightweight Champion, and finally in 1908, Johnson was able to fight against the white Tommy Burns, beating him with a knockout after fourteen rounds. So there’s just a lot of “issues” going on around here.
Johnson was troublingly vocal and proud of his physical prowess, and I would go so far as to maybe even call him a bit of a, howyousay, “dick.” But then again, if you’d grown up in a society where you’d been constantly made to feel worthless because of the color of your skin and not the content of your character, you’d probably be a bit of a dick as well. For one thing, he was open about his penchant for not just white laydays, but laydays in general. He verbally taunted his opponents of all races, in an out of the ring. He loved cigars and fur coats and opera and fast cars and tailored suits, and really just all the finer things. He was once pulled over for a speeding ticket for $50, gave the officer a $100 bill and told him to keep the change because he (Johnson) would be returning at that speed.
Straight up, Jack, straight up.
Thus, racial tensions are running high on that July 4th in Reno, with people calling for a “Great White Hope” to knock Johnson out. The 1910 match with Jeffries was supposed to be Johnson’s great takedown, and instead, we’ve got a black boxer who refuses to be defeated, is flamboyantly proud, hyper-masculine, dates white ladies, and has just knocked out the former reigning world champion. HnnnnnnnnnnnghI’msouncomfortablewiththissituation.
The fight triggered huge riots that night in more than 25 states, with whites taking to the streets in protest just as African Americans were heading out to celebrate. Eight blacks and five whites were killed, and hundreds were injured across the country.
U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.! S.! A.!
Johnson became even more famous, and continued his wildass partying and pastyladyboning. In 1909, he’d met a white, wealthy, socialite divorcée named Etta Terry Duryea. They married in 1911, but the union was not a happy one to say the least (cf the “dick” moniker). Johnson regularly physically abused Duryea, who suffered severe depression and took her own life in 1912. *teethsuck* THEN, less than three months later, Jack married Lucille Cameron, who was, yes, you guessed it, also of the Caucasian persuasion. Heyyyyyy.
This marriage was deemed to be in violation of the Mann Act, which said you couldn’t transport a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. Supposedly Lucille was a “prostitute,” and apparently Johnson was “black,” but you know, we may never really know the details. Either way, Lucille refused to press charges and the case was dismissed. Though about a month later, Jack was charged for the same thing with, waitforit, BELLE SCHREIBER!!!1! Boom, full circle.
He was sentenced to a year and a day in prison, but, like many good Americans, skipped over to France when shit got a little too real stateside. He and Lucille lived in Europe, South America, and Mexico until 1920, when he surrendered to federal agents and in fact ended up only serving 355 days out of his 366 day sentence. Hey, look at that leniency!
Sidenote: Around about this time, Johnson opened a swank night club in Harlem, which he sold in 1923 and which would then become the famous Cotton Club.
Jack kept up his philanderin’ ways, and Lucille eventually divorced him in 1924. The next year, he married Irene Pineau, who stuck with him till he died in 1946, and who, as far as Wikipedia tells me, was not a call-girl.
So there you have it! Jack Johnson: ladylover, barrierbuster, kindofadick, American.
Also, a special thanks to my friend, DCH, whose blog History’s Hotties, was a big inspiration for MRG, LHB, and myself to have our own blogbaby (blayby). She first wrote about Jack Johnson before it was cool. You can read her post here.