Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

042: Jack Johnson, boxing champion in Britain 1911

Johnson, top left, with other sports personalities of the 1910s
Johnson, top left, with other sports personalities of the 1910s

In September 1911 a black man from Texas named Jack Johnson came into conflict in London with Winston Churchill,  leading figures in the church, and the chairman of the London County Council. Newspaper reports reveal several interesting aspects of British life, including attitudes to race.

Johnson had defeated Tommy Burns (top right) in Australia in 1908 to become world heavyweight boxing champion. Many whites proclaimed the retired champion Jim Jeffries to still hold the title, until he was defeated by Johnson in Nevada in 1910. Anti-black riots followed (London’s Daily Mail of 18 July 1910 said that the fight had “led to race riots in the United States”). Exhibition of the film of that match was thought by the London County Council to be undesirable. Johnson was well-known, and a British impressario contracted for him to meet England’s champion William ”Bombardier Billy” Wells, a match to take place at the Earl’s Court exhibition centre in London on 2 October 1911. The prize was £8,000 (at a time when £250 a year was a decent income).
Johnson’s blackness was just one element in the reports. The Revd Frederick Brotherton Meyer, an important Methodist minister, disliked the prize money, believing that boxing was a sport and should be played for fun or just a salary. He would also have disliked the gambling that went on when boxers met. Although sympathetic to blacks (the London Pan-African Congress, 1900 and in the League of Universal Brotherhood in 1906-1907) Meyer was unaware that boxing had involved whites meeting blacks for many decades. When the Sportsman discovered this, it said that “the racial question is only involved simply and solely to strengthen a weak case” and the next week published a letter advising Meyer to agitate against the hunting of both hares and otters (20 and 27 September 1911).
Boxing (like the Sportsman, its allegiance was obvious) not only published photographs of black boxers from time to time but back on 4 March, when Sam Langford (born in Nova Scotia, Canada) beat the Australian Bill Lang for £3,500, commented “the old colour-line is once more being advocated” and asked “is the white race ready to confess its inferiority?” The Times reported the battle between Meyer and the sporting world. Ten thousand were expected to attend; the head of the Church Army backed Meyer’s efforts to stop the match; and published a letter that stated white police in the West Indies had experienced problems when the news of Johnson’s victory reached the Caribbean. It noted that Meyer refused to see film of the Johnson v. Jeffries match, and that Meyer was organising a petition requesting Home Secretary Winston Churchill to ban the proposed match “on the grounds of public order”.  Sporting Life indicated that Churchill believed that “what is contemplated is illegal” (26 September).
Bishops, university heads, socialist leader Ramsay MacDonald and apparently the Archbishop of Canterbury supported Meyer, as did Boy Scout founder General Baden Powell and Field Marshall Lord Roberts. The Sportsman (20 September, front page) reported Meyer saying: “The present conflict is not wholly one of skill, because on the one side there is added the instinctive passion of the negro race, which is so differently constituted to our own, and in the present instance will be aroused to do the utmost that immense animal development can do to retain the championship, together with all the great financial gain that would follow”. The same day’s Church Times declared that “the importation of colour prejudice into the discussion is deplorable”.
No army corps had been sent to any part of the Empire to repress black people after the result of the Langford v. Lang fight, the Sportsman soon observed. Boxing showed how black v. white boxing was normal in Britain by advising that the Dixie Kid would meet Johnny Summers in Liverpool on 17 November 1911.
The magistrate at Bow Street in central London heard the case, for the promoter, Wells and Johnson had been served with an injunction and had to prove that there would not be any breach of the peace if the match went ahead. The sole police witness had never seen a boxing match, but the promoters and the pugilists were bound over to keep the peace and Wells promised never to meet Johnson in a boxing match anywhere in the United Kingdom.
Boxing had an uncertain status in Britain. In November 1911 a match between Jim Driscoll and Owen Moran scheduled for Birmingham before 10,000 forced the National Sporting Club to employ a fine lawyer to defend the pair and the promoter, but he was unable to show cause why they should not be bound over to keep the peace – and the match was cancelled.
Such an undertaking was an enormous risk for the promoters who would face fines and even imprisonment if disturbances occured. In view of the Driscoll and Moran decision, it seems safe to say that if Jack Johnson had been white, the legal and financial reasons behind the ban on his fight with Wells would have been enough. Those who added ”race” to the mixture exposed their bigotry then and now. That addition was “deplorable” as the Church Times had said, and as The Times noted “the large number of contests between white and black men and [that] there had never been an attempt to get a licence of the premises where they were to be held revoked as a consequence”.
The flamboyant Johnson remained a figure in the popular imagination — British infantry named German shells in the 1914-1918 war “Jack Johnsons” (because they were big, moved fast, and hit hard?) — but lost his title in 1915. Black folk singers, singing about the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, certainly in the case of Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter), told how Johnson was refused a ticket on the doomed ship as “we are not hauling no coal”. Recorded in 1948, issued on an album, the tale is widely believed although Johnson was not in England at the time.
Two younger, gentler and unprovocative black boxers seem to have changed the public image: American champion Joe Louis and British champion (born in England of a Guyanese father) Randolph Turpin.
First published: Jeffrey Green, “Boxing and the ‘Colour Question’ in Edwardian Britain: the ‘White Problem’ of 1911″, International Journal of the History of Sport (London), Vol 5, No 1 (May 1988), pp 115-119.
See also Jack Birtley, The Tragedy of Randolph Turpin London: New English Library, 1975.