Nov. 15, 1901, evening in San Francisco: At the Mechanics Pavilion, boxers Jim Jeffries and Gus Ruhlin faced off. When it was over, Jeffries the victor, the New York Times called it “one of the most unsatisfactory prizefights ever witnessed in this country. … In the fifth round of what was to have been a twenty-round struggle, Ruhlin wilted and then surrendered to his peer, to the utter amazement and disgust of the assembled thousands.”

But the fight had served another purpose that night, unnoticed by anyone who might have cared. A 23-year-old African-American and a group of his friends had snuck into the pavilion and hidden themselves under the ring. After the pavilion became crowded, they emerged to watch the fight.

The 23-year-old, Jack Johnson, was interested in more than just another boxing match.

“I studied Jeffries’s peculiar crouching style,” he later wrote. “I mentally projected myself into the ring. I put myself in Ruhlin’s place and figured out what I would do if I, instead of Ruhlin, were there in the ring with Mr. Jeffries. By the time the battle was over I had a system of defense formulated in my own mind.” That night, Johnson decided that if this was the competition, he could beat it.

He was born in Galveston in 1878, the son of two former slaves. In the years after his parents received their freedom, the South—and eventually the United States—became a horror for blacks. African-Americans lost their freedom of contract and their land, and they were forced to work in conditions similar to slavery. There were those who considered the state of blacks worse than it had been during slavery. And what law did not do to African-Americans during the Gilded Age, terror and violence did.

Johnson’s first experience fighting was being put in a ring with nine other young blacks who went at each other while whites watched, the winner receiving a cash prize.

Johnson was schooled for five years, then went to work as a dock worker. A job in a gym led him to boxing. In 1897, he fought his first professional fight, a win against Charley Brooks. In 1902, he fought and beat Jack Jeffries, brother of the man he had watched fight Gus Ruhlin in San Francisco.

But there was a color line in boxing. The titles of all the early heavyweight “champions,” such as John L. Sullivan and Jim Corbett, are tainted because they were unwilling to fight all logical contenders. They didn’t hold the heavyweight crown. They held the white heavyweight crown.

Johnson won his first title on Feb. 3, 1903, against Ed Martin for the “colored heavyweight championship,” as it was called. “Johnson is easily the best man in his class today,” said referee Billy Roche. “You’re a clever nigger,” said boxer Jim Flynn, the last words he spoke before Johnson knocked him out.

He did all of this in spite of a bit of white folklore in the fight game, the notion that blacks had a “yellow streak” and would not put up a real fight. If there was an African-American who could dispel it, it would be Jack Johnson.

Johnson was unlike any African-American the nation had ever seen. It was not just that he was black—Nevada had hosted the interracial Sept. 3, 1906, Gans/Nelson lightweight championship fight in Goldfield with none of the tumult that later accompanied Johnson’s rise. But Johnson insisted on living the life of any other man and had the money to do it. He spent his time with fast cars and white women. He wore expensive, tailored clothes. Johnson was not one bit reserved. To many whites, his very existence was intolerable.

White writers claimed the white-woman thing meant that Johnson was ostracized in both black and white communities, which was untrue. Johnson was wildly popular with African-Americans, most of whom seemed to accept Johnson’s explanation that he found white women less trouble.

But the color line still kept Johnson from fighting the reigning white champions.

Chasing history

That changed in 1908 when champion Tommy Burns of Canada—who had been chased around the world by Johnson—agreed to fight him in Australia. The fight was held in Sydney the day after Christmas and, to the consternation of white supremacists, Johnson won. He was the heavyweight champion. He had united the title and become the champion of both blacks and whites.

Sportswriter Jack London covered the Sydney fight. (In his short story “A Piece of Steak,” London had described Johnson as a “Yankee nigger.”) He cabled the United States with the first call for a great white hope: “The fight! There was no fight! No American massacre could compare to the hopeless slaughter that took place in the Sydney Stadium. … But one thing now remains. Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you. The White Man must be rescued.”

Jack Johnson smiled all through the fight. Jim Jeffries did not.

Jim Jeffries had won the heavyweight title in 1899, holding it until he retired in 1905. But he had no interest in coming out of retirement.

Johnson fought four white hopes in 1909, racking up three wins and a draw. The search kept coming back to Jeffries. Month after month the pressure on the former champion grew. Finally Jeffries agreed to leave his alfalfa farm to fight Johnson. After other states declined to host the fight—boxing was still considered sleazy, and it was illegal or could not legally be done for money in most states—the fight was set for Reno on July 4, 1910. (Acting Nevada Governor George Pyne had given a quick green light to the bout.) Reno was given just 14 days notice.

“That nigger has made more noise and done less than any man I know,” Jeffries said.

White supremacists had their white hope at last.

The time and place

In 1910, when there were objections to African-American census workers, the U.S. counted 93,402,151 souls in the nation, fewer than a third of the 2010 population. The African-American population was 9,827,763, 10.7 percent of the nation. And some of them would not make it through the year. Seventy-seven black citizens were lynched that year. One of them was burned at the stake the day before Reno was chosen for the fight.

In Texas that year, a mob of 200 whites drove a group of 30 or 40 African-American peons (the correct term in the peonage system) into a woods and killed them, a race war that then spread to other towns until the U.S. cavalry was called in.

Crisis, the magazine edited by W. E.B. Du Bois and published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, began publication in 1910.

Baltimore’s city council, alarmed that African-Americans were moving into “neighborhoods of the better class, inhabited by white persons,” instituted the first known city ordinance barring blacks from city blocks that had white majorities, an innovation that spread to other communities.

When a young Cheyenne man became an alternate choice for a West Point slot, United Press reported, “Officers of the academy declare that should the negro be appointed, he will be absolutely ostracised by the other cadets.”

Though Reno was on its best behavior during the days preceding the fight, it was no different. Two years earlier, while serving as race marshal at the Reno race track, Tom Ramsey, for whom the Lyon County mining camp of Ramsey was named, pistol-whipped an African-American jockey who declined to race, causing a near riot.

The same year, city officials elicited a health warning from the city health board during a period of anti-Chinese sentiment. They burned Reno’s Chinatown to the ground with no warning to residents (to prevent them from getting a court order stopping the action), who were left homeless in the snow with a labor group promising to drive the refugees out of town.

Visitors flooded into Reno for the Johnson/Jeffries fight. If they were expecting the kind of daring or romantic West they’d read about in the pulps or seen on film, they were probably disappointed. In a Reno saloon, Bodie miner Tom Hefer dropped his revolver and shot himself in the back. Reports of a saloon murder raced through the crowds.

“High noon and four deep around the roulette and faro tables—that is the situation in Reno to-day,” the New York Times reported. “Drifting in and out of the gambling places are quietly dressed sporting men, business men on a vacation, fakers from the underworld, and the men that belong to the hills and the desert.”

Then as now, local boosters acted like hicks, accepting praise for the town as their due but whining loudly over criticisms, some of which legitimately described Reno as somewhat primitive, others that questioned Nevada’s willingness to welcome disreputable activities like prizefighting. The Chicago Record Herald, recalling the Bob Fitzsimmons/Jim Corbett white championship fight in Carson City on St. Patrick’s Day 1897, observed in an editorial, “The general tone of public morals in Nevada has not changed a great deal in thirteen years.” In Austin, Nevada’s Reese River Reveille replied, “Bribe takers do not elect United States senators in Nevada; they do in Illinois,” suggesting that the Reveille’s editor had never been to Carson City. (Senators were then appointed by state legislatures.)

Private railroad cars were lined up after bringing their wealthy passengers to Reno. Some of them were used as lodging after the hotels filled up.

Reno High School senior Clark Webster wrote in his diary, “Sunday; July 3, 1910: Had a corker of a day yesterday, but not quite as bad as last year. People have been piling in here on every train the last 5 days and the special trains are coming in to-day. While I was down town this afternoon, three specials came in, one from Spokane and the other two from California. The Thomas Cafe has opened another lunch counter and I had to take a lot of stuff there in the last week. I also delivered a ton of spuds to the Thomas last Friday. We work tomorrow morning to supply the restaurants.”

Tasker Oddie’s announcement he would run for governor was dwarfed by a bigger story. Oddie won his race.

“There were writers who said Jeffries was going to win and they thought about it and thought about it and went and put their money on Johnson,” historian Philip Earl said at a recent Nevada Historical Society lecture.

Johnson and Jeffries established training camps outside the city, and there were pilgrimages by everyone from stable hands to the governor to watch the training.

Jeffries had been in Reno at least twice before. In 1904, he appeared in Reno’s McKissick Opera House in the title role of the “idyl backwoods drama” Davy Crockett by Frank Mayo. It was common for prizefighters to supplement their income by appearing onstage. Jeffries had also been in Reno in 1905 to referee the Marvin Hart/Jack Root fight.

Johnson was received courteously in Reno, the city doing nothing to spoil its role as host of a history-making event.

On the day Jeffries arrived in Reno, the owner of the Novelty Theatre in Ely staged a boxing match and refused to pay the $1,000 license fee (and was arrested) in an apparent effort to provoke a court test of the state’s licensing law that could have—but didn’t—stop the Reno bout.

At one point, rumors swept the land that Theodore Roosevelt would attend the fight. The Reveille suggested Roosevelt be made the referee.

The news coverage was slanted, and not particularly subtle, either. The Los Angeles Times called Johnson “the kind of coon you read about (in the comics).”

Cartoons showed Johnson speaking in a dialect he never used. “Mistah Jeffries what am we all g’win ter do about dah fracus,” said “Johnson” in a Los Angeles Times cartoon. In 2006, a compact disc of Johnson and other historic black figures was released, and New York Times critic Margo Jefferson wrote that listeners “will be startled by his stately vowels and crisp consonants.”

Jeffries was referred to in the mainstream public prints as Jeff or Jeffries. Johnson was referred to as Johnson, but never Jack—and often as “the big Negro” and by nicknames like “the Big Smoke.”

“We had a big meeting last week presided over by Jack Munroe at which it was decided to negotiate for the fight between the coon and James J.,” said one fight promoter in 1909, demonstrating the difference in attitude toward the two. Jeffries’ relatively lazy training regimen was given an unbeat spin. For Johnson, there were no excuses. Reporters found positive traits in Jeffries and failings in Johnson that seem delusional in retrospect.

Canadian reporter Fred Hewitt, under a story headlined “NEVADA CLIMATE TOOK SPEED AND GINGER OUT OF JACK JOHNSON,” wrote that Jeffries was being circumspect by following his doctor’s orders—his reason for Jeffries’ sluggishness—and that Johnson’s speed was failing him.

“Jeff has paid strict attention to the physicians’ advice since he has been here and it has been such that the crowds have had very little opportunity to see him in action,” Hewitt wrote. “The altitude had gotten in its work and the negro was very slow, lazy and drone-like and his boxing showed no signs of his old time speed and cleverness.”

Jeffries was actually more realistic than his backers. He said he would win but in the process would probably take quite a beating because, “I realize that this nigger is a more clever man than I am.”

The fight

On fight day, Reno High student Webster told his diary, “I sure did work this morning. Took a ton of spuds to the Thomas and five sacks to the Owl! Also 15 crates of cantelopes [sic] to the Thomas and about sixteen other things to them and other restaurants. The crowd was so thick on Center St. that I had to walk my horse through the bunch. They would get out of the way slowly and then close in again as soon as I got past.”

At the arena on the Reno/Sparks road there was another indignity to which Johnson was subjected. A photograph was taken of a Mt. Rushmore-like lineup of boxing dignitaries, including past champions, shaking hands with Jeffries. The reigning heavyweight champ was not included.

In New London, Conn., crowds gathered outside the offices of the Day, the local newspaper, a scene repeated in numerous communities around the nation. Paragraph-long descriptions of each round were read as they came in.

Crowds poured in at Reno’s railroad yard.

On Long Island, the wealthy men of the Edgemere Club arranged for a New York City hotel to have someone copy bulletins from the front of the New York Times building and phone them to the club.

In Austin, Nev., the results arrived via a relay through several communities, including Round Mountain and Manhattan.

It was one of those days when the whole world was watching. The failure of Jack Johnson’s speed and ginger seemed nowhere in evidence. Johnson later wrote that within moments of the start of the fight, he sensed he was in full command. Certainly nothing in his demeanor suggested doubt. Relaxed and confident, he smiled throughout the fight. He constantly taunted Jeffries and Jeffries’ second, Jim Corbett.

There is some mystery as to why the fight went on as long as it did—15 rounds—when it was apparent that Johnson was in control and could end it at any time. Some later speculated that he kept it going for the benefit of the motion picture cameras. But he denied it. Perhaps he just enjoyed the fight.

Johnson defeated Jeffries with ease, toying with him and knocking him down twice—the only two knockdowns Jeffries experienced in his career. At one point, while Johnson stood at ease, the horizontal Jeffries tried to disentangle himself from the ropes. When he tried to get up, Johnson feinted toward him, and Jeffries slumped back down to the canvas. It was humiliating. Jeffries’ men wanted to throw in the towel, to spare their man a knockout, but they literally couldn’t find a towel. So they jumped into the ring. That did it. The fight was over, Johnson the winner. Jeffries’ handlers had violated fight rules by entering the ring, giving the fight to Johnson. Rickard, drowned out by the crowd, called it to an end. While he tried to make himself heard, the fight went on until the crush of people in the ring made it apparent that the fight had ended.

Johnson was still the heavyweight champion, but there was a reminder of his place in society—he received a smaller purse for winning the fight than Jeffries would have gotten for a win.

The fight he had never wanted over, the great white hope left Reno in the private railroad car he would soon no longer be able to afford and traveled first to San Francisco and then back to his alfalfa farm in southern California.

Johnson departed Reno after a large gathering on Center Street at which he picked up his prize money. He traveled to a huge reception in Chicago and then to another in New York.

Not everyone in Reno had bothered with the fight. The Reno High student, Clark Webster, and one of his friends “took one of the horses and got a rig at the stable and drove out the Long Valley Road about 8 miles.”

According to his diary, “When we got back we found out that Johnson knocked Jeffries out in the 15th round.

“Took P.S. to the Majestic [theatre] this evening. It was fine.”

Backlash

As word spread across the nation that day about what had happened in Reno, white rage erupted. Rioting broke out in half the states, and whites went on lynching rampages. It was not just a Southern thing. Rioting and murder took place in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Illinois, Colorado. It is uncertain how many blacks were killed.

Rioting was renewed when the fight films were released for local showings, but one leading African-American spokesperson, Talladega College president William Pickens, said, “It was a good deal better for Johnson to win and a few Negroes be killed in body for it than for Johnson to have lost and Negroes to have been killed in spirit by the preachments of inferiority from the combined white press.”

Not all agreed. The showing of the films became an ongoing problem. Mayors and governors declared themselves on whether they should be shown. They were banned in some cities. In Ireland, they were shown over the objections of the church; in Berlin, a censorship battle finally ended with their showing. There were mass meetings in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and other cities, and clergymembers were aroused.

Congress managed to find a solution that solved nothing. Moral reformers, as they later did with alcohol and drugs, had a simple solution for the boxing that offended them: Ban it. But that was not going to get through Congress, so it did the next best thing. It banned the interstate transport of boxing films. The very sight of the black triumph in Reno would be squelched for years until the silly law was repealed.

On July 13, Johnson himself watched the movies in Flatbush. “The black champion seemed much pleased as he watched himself in action,” the New York Times reported. “Mrs. Johnson sat beside her husband and chuckled with delight every time the films showed him landing a telling blow on the white man.” (Newspapers, including those in Reno, tended to refer to Johnson’s unmarried companions as his wife.)

Johnson came back to Nevada for a Boulder City fight with Frank Moran in 1932.

In New Zealand, the Evening Post—which before the fight had engaged in a steady stream of abuse against Johnson—asked, “How could a nigger be a gentleman—especially a nigger pugilist? But since July Fourth the whole country has been convinced. … That golden smile stayed with the negro right through. The prophets had said it would give place to a golden streak down the negro’s back when he faced the unbeaten champion. But there was never a sign of fear.”

But in London, the Daily Telegraph editorialized, “It is useless to hold up the hand of reprobating here. These things are brutal and vile, but behind them lies the absolute necessity to keep the negro race a little in check, for if it once gets out of hand there will be worse scenes under the Stars and Stripes than have ever yet been witnessed.”

In the United States, the climate was just as poisonous for Johnson. The U.S. government’s reaction was to use the law to punish the object of the white supremacists’ hatred. It mounted a Mann Act prosecution against Johnson and convicted him.

Some have claimed, in fact, that the Mann Act, which prohibited taking a woman across state lines for immoral purposes, was enacted specifically to provide a means of getting Johnson. Historian Guy Louis Rocha and others challenge this account, though how the story originated is understandable—the law was coincidentally enacted just nine days before the Reno fight. But the archival record is pretty clear that the law was intended to crack down on white slavery. Its provisions were stretched and misused to cover a black man traveling across a state line with a white woman, each freely consenting.

Johnson left for Europe before he could be imprisoned. He spent years traveling from nation to nation. The search for a white hope went on. Johnson wanted to defend his title but, as would later happen to Muhammed Ali, his best fighting years were taken from him. From 1910 to 1915, he was able to fight only four times, and some of those bouts were trivialized. One Virginia newspaper said that after his Reno performance “no man in the world is eager to get in the ring with him.”

Johnson attended European operas, performed as a musician, gave exhibitions, and thought of home.

In 1912, white supremacist Woodrow Wilson was elected U.S. president, and after taking office, he segregated the federal workforce.

But Johnson was still champion, and that was a continuing trial for whites. Finally in 1915, Johnson and Jess Willard met in Havana. Johnson was talked into a 45-round fight instead of the 20 he wanted. At age 37, he handled Willard fine in the early rounds, then faded under the brutal sun and was KOed.

He later said he had taken a fall in order to get a good deal from the United States. But it was still five years before he returned home and served the one-year prison sentence. While imprisoned, Johnson invented a wrench and received a patent for it. When he got out of prison, the Ku Klux Klan had become the nation’s most powerful single political force. The Klan and the new American Legion competed for members. In July 1921, after a local Legion post in Chicago entertained Johnson, other Legion posts called for revoking the Chicago charter.

Johnson went back to fighting, but he was no longer really a contender. He returned to Nevada in 1932 for a one-round exhibition bout against Frank Moran, fought in the Anderson Mess Hall for Hoover Dam workers in Boulder City. It was surely a reminder to Johnson of his glory days—in 1914, the day before Gavrilo Princip shot Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Johnson had successfully defended his title against Moran at the Velodrome d’Hiver in Paris.

Johnson’s last bout was in 1938. Thereafter, his celebrity became his career. Meanwhile, after Havana, the boxing world went back to an exclusively white championship. Not until Joe Louis came along was an African-American given a shot at the title again, and Louis’ managers insisted he conduct himself “as a likeable bible-reading violin-playing young Galahad”—the un-Jack Johnson.

Johnson died in 1946 in a car crash in North Carolina.

Legacy

The great white hope fight offered the nation an opportunity for dialogue and growth, but the hatred of the age prevented it from even taking form. The strata of racism revealed by the fight and its aftermath were alarms, but the habitual arrogance of progressives and social reformers did more harm than good.

The anti-boxing Christian Science Monitor, which had religiously withheld any coverage of the fight and its surrounding issues from its readers, jumped into the fray during the riots. “RENO’S BRUTAL MEET AROUSES PASSIONS OF CITIES’ POPULACE” read its headline. Even a New York Times editorial on race in the wake of the fight contributed little. What little discussion there was of race pitted self-righteous moralists against self-righteous white supremacists. Those who wanted a more practical dialogue were not heard.

The expectations of white victory in Reno and the over-the-top praise of Jeffries were delusional, fueled not by reality but by the dogma of white supremacy. So many were certain of victory in spite of the evidence in front of them. When it was over, it clearly called for an examination of why the dogma of the age had taken in so many, yet there was no such reckoning. Instead, the terror and violence of the age was the response.

By the time of Johnson’s death, whites had succeeded in making him a faint memory—to whites. But in the black community he remained a powerful icon. He became an inspiration to Muhammed Ali, who was 4 years old when Johnson died.

The great white hope fight has been immortalized in drama and poetry. Leadbelly, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Mos Def, Tom Russell and Richard Wright used their art to remember Johnson. Ali, whose career contained so many parallels to that of Johnson—his taunting of opponents in the ring, the price he paid during years in exile from boxing—knew the story well.

In 1968, the play The Great White Hope by Howard Sackler debuted on Broadway, receiving the Pulitzer Prize. It was followed two years later by a film version.

As recently as 1969, Jerry Quarry was described by New York magazine as a “great white hope.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...