When a black fighter won ‘the fight of the century,’ race riots erupted across America
On Independence Day, 1910, race riots ignited across America. Jack Johnson, a black boxer, had defeated the white Jim Jeffries in a heavyweight fight in the middle of the Reno desert. Cities around the nation, including Houston, New York, St. Louis, Omaha, New Orleans, Little Rock, and Los Angeles, erupted with the anger and vindication of a racially divided country.
The day after, newspapers set on the difficult task of tallying the aftermath. “One man was shot in Arkansas, two negroes were killed at Lake Providence, La.; one negro was killed at Mounds, Ill., and a negro fatally wounded in Roundeye, Va.,” reported one local newspaper, explaining that “the tension that existed everywhere vented itself out chiefly in street shuffles.”
A report from Houston read, “Charles Williams, a negro fight enthusiast, had his throat slashed from ear to ear on a streetcar by a white man, having announced too vociferously his appreciation of Jack Johnson’s victory in Reno.”
In Manhattan’s San Juan Hill neighborhood, a mob set fire to a black tenement, while blocking the doorway to prevent the occupants’ escape. In St. Louis, a black crowd marched the streets, pushing No one knows how many died in the wake of Johnson-Jeffries fight, but records show between 11 and 26 were killed. Likely hundreds were assaulted or beaten. To quell the disturbance, cities barred the fight video from being shown in theaters, and Congress tried to pass a bill to ban the screening of all boxing films.
William Pickens, president of the all-black Talladega College, was heartened by the symbolic victory, acknowledging it came at a great cost. “It was a good deal better for Johnson to win and a few negroes to be killed in body for it,” he said, “than for Johnson to have lost and negroes to have been killed in spirit by the preachments of inferiority from the combined white press.”
As Johnson biographer Geoffrey C. Ward pointed out, “No event yielded such widespread racial violence until the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., fifty-eight years later.”whites off the sidewalk and harassing them, before being clubbed and dispersed by police.
In Washington, two white men were fatally stabbed by black men, with 236 people arrested in that city alone. And in Omaha, a black man was smothered to death in a barber’s chair, while in Wheeling, West Virginia, a black man driving an expensive car — just as the playboyish Jack Johnson was famous for — was beset by a mob and hanged.