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June 15, 1959
BEGINNING the extraordinary story of Jack Johnson, the Negro fighter whose brilliant skill won for his race the first championship of the world, and for himself a life of spectacular excess and ultimate tragedy
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June 15, 1959

Black Hamlet Of The Heavyweights

BEGINNING the extraordinary story of Jack Johnson, the Negro fighter whose brilliant skill won for his race the first championship of the world, and for himself a life of spectacular excess and ultimate tragedy

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Conspicuously excepted from the ranks of the mourners, of course, were the ordinary Negroes of America. The moment the news of Johnson's triumph came through, at about 3:45 p.m. Reno time, they rushed out in thousands, parading, dancing, shouting and beating tin pans. They soon encountered the police and parties of angry white men as well. That night six people were killed and scores wounded in the serious rioting which broke out in both the North and South. All this could have been avoided if Jack Johnson had not lived so high, or beaten Burns and Jeffries so badly, or even if he had shown the simple forethought to be born with a white skin. As it was, he left Reno for Chicago on a special train, carrying $60,000 in a stout satchel, the most controversial figure in America.

Not long after, having established a home for his mother and sisters in Chicago, Johnson set out on his second European theatrical tour, accompanied by Etta and a staff of servants and managers headed by his nephew, Gus Rhodes. Johnson's boxing and musical act was booked in Marseilles, Lyons, Brussels, Berlin, Budapest, Bucharest, St. Petersburg and London. "I was a bigger attraction than the king," said the champion, referring to his arrival in England at the time of the coronation of George V. Johnson drew a crowd wherever he went, and his appearance at a London or Paris nightspot was always impressive, with his party the center of a scurry of waiters and wine stewards. He was frequently photographed in public resorts, surrounded by smiling dark and light faces and usually grinning at the camera over a clump of bottles.

Johnson was highly conscious of the difference between these surroundings and those of his hoboing youth, and the contrast set him thinking of a profitable way to dramatize his extraordinary advance in the world. Meditating in the more magnificent restaurants and nightclubs of London, Paris and Berlin on the tremendous distance he had traveled since his poverty-stricken Galveston childhood, Johnson concluded that he could be extremely happy as the managing director of a luxurious saloon. Successful pugilists traditionally waited for retirement before opening taverns. But Johnson had a better idea: he would parade before his public as a professional host while he still wore the fine gold crown of a champion. And he knew exactly where to set up shop—he would go home and add to the nearly 8,000 gin mills of Chicago a racially integrated place where excessively formal conduct would not be required and where, to use his own expression, there might be some "lively times."

Returning to Chicago with his plans matured, Johnson enlisted the financial backing of a brewery, and the enterprise soon got under way at 41 West 31st Street, immediately to the south of the world-famed Levee district, an area that was almost entirely free of the spirit of holier-than-thou. On opening night of the Caf� de Champion, as the new resort was called, thousands of would-be patrons lined up for blocks and fought to get inside to see what Johnson had prepared for their entertainment.

Those who struggled past the doors found themselves in a splendid cabaret-restaurant with several rooms, a tremendous bar, solid silver cuspidors and a great number of paintings and other art works on display. "Having traveled extensively," Johnson said of this episode in his memoirs, "I had gained a comprehensive idea of decorative effects. I also had collected many fine works of art, curios and novelties, an array of artistic creations which put to shame many similar establishments in both Europe and America." Visitors viewed portraits of Johnson, his wife and his parents by "one of the foremost artists in America." The proprietor pointed out "a few real Rembrandts," as well as a series of biblical scenes, together with a life-size representation of the Empress Cleopatra at the height of her reign. In these impressive surroundings the opening-night ceremonies continued until after dawn, a pace that was maintained from then on in.

It was one long, continuous party for Jack Johnson, but it was not to last. The facts were that while the ample facilities of the South Side amusement areas were a source of some pride to many Chicagoans, the preachers and clubwomen were dead set against them, and mighty forces were beginning to stir. He had survived the Galveston Flood, but nothing in the world could save Johnson from the wave of reform which was about to crash over the Levee. He was carried down, not because his saloon was anything worse than the lively nightspot he claimed it to be but because individual as well as institutional improvement was in the air, and his fame, his color and his notoriously free and easy manner of living made him a prime personal target for the reformers who now advanced in zealous ranks upon Chicago's sporting population. With plenty of material to work on, a crowd of clergymen, prosecutors and detectives, together with the members of a grand jury, began a fascinating scrutiny of Jack Johnson's private life.

Although he was tipped off that he was under investigation, Johnson made no effort toward establishing a more discreet pattern of conduct but gave his main attention to setting up a match with "Fireman" Jim Flynn (real name Andrew Chiariglione), the most vigorous of the current white hopes. The fight, Johnson's first since he defeated Jeffries, took place at Las Vegas on July 4, 1912. As in the case of Tommy Burns, police entered the ring to save The Fireman from serious injury, and the affair was neither an artistic nor financial success.

A sad and terrible thing now took place in Johnson's household: his wife Etta committed suicide in their apartment over the caf�. Johnson wept at the funeral but within a month was involved in scandal when one of his entertainers shot him in the foot during an argument over his attentions to a white girl named Lucille Cameron. The injury was negligible, but the situation which brought it about contained the seeds of disaster. Lucille, a bright and good-looking girl, had come to Chicago from Minneapolis to see life and get on in the world. She visited the Caf� de Champion, met Johnson and got a job as his secretary. Soon Miss Cameron's mother appeared, with lawyers, and threatened to charge Johnson with abduction. Nothing came of this, but the machinery of reform was now grinding harder than ever, and on November 12 Johnson was put under federal indictment on grounds that he had transported one Belle Schreiber across several state lines in violation of the Mann Act, which had been passed in 1910. Of course this Act, which stands as a monument to Representative James Robert Mann of Illinois, was intended not to regulate personal conduct but to crack down on the promoters of commercialized vice. Johnson had nothing to do with such business, but it was true that Belle Schreiber, a white woman from Milwaukee, had traveled in his entourage. And it was well known that this woman was one of several who had at various times been publicly linked with Johnson in a socially condemnable way.

Jack Johnson now made it absolutely certain that he would be convicted and given a harsh sentence by marrying Lucille Cameron. The ceremony was performed at the home of fight promoter Jack Curley by a Negro minister on December 3. A number of reporters were present, one of whom asked Lucille, "Where's your mother, Mrs. Johnson?" "I don't know and I don't care," said the bride. Johnson's mother was there but replied when asked for a statement, "Sometimes I say things Jack doesn't like, so I'll keep my thoughts to myself." As the champagne corks popped Johnson took the $2,500 ring from his wife's finger and put it in his pocket. All of this was reported at length in the Chicago papers.

When he went to trial in May of 1913 Johnson had to admit that most of the charges against him were technically correct; he also might well have quoted Mr. Bumble's comment on the law. And to no one's surprise the jury quickly voted for conviction. Judge George Carpenter accurately reflected respectable opinion when he said in passing sentence, "This defendant is one of the best-known men of his race, and his example has been far reaching, and the court is bound to consider the position he occupied among his people. In view of these facts, this is a case that calls for more than a fine." Accordingly, he slapped Johnson with a year and a day in the penitentiary at Joliet, Ill., in addition to a fine of $1,000.

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