Onetime Champ Deserves a Marker
Occasionally someone will ask me what my father did for a living.
I figure the person asking the question is looking to attribute my character flaws, which are many, to my father - the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, that sort of thing.
I always own up: "My father was a boxing coach."
"That's odd, and you write poetry?"
"Have you forgotten the great Muhammad Ali?" I'll ask.
Then I'll quote a couplet:
If you were surprised when Nixon resigned,
Just watch what happens when I whup Foreman's behind!
Character flaws notwithstanding, there are two advantages to having a boxing coach for a father. First, you don't backsass him. Second, you end up knowing more about boxers than you need to.
I recall riding with my father up old U.S. 1 north of Raleigh when I was 16. Somewhere near Franklinton, he pulled the Fairlane onto the shoulder and said, "This is where Jack Johnson died."
Even then, I knew part of Johnson's story: He was one of the greatest heavyweight champions of the world - maybe the greatest - but he was also a black man enduring life in Jim Crow America.
"What happened to him?" I asked my father.
"They wouldn't serve him at a restaurant in Raleigh," he explained. "Johnson got angry and drove too fast and lost control of his car. He was an hour away from the nearest black hospital, and when they got him there, it was too late."
We sat on the side of the road for a minute, and I sensed that my father was paying tribute to Johnson, that somehow he felt a connection with the first black heavyweight champion of the world.
Johnson and my father are long in their graves, but I never drive by Franklinton without recalling the moment I spent there with my father - and I always wonder why there's no North Carolina historical marker noting the location of Johnson's tragic accident.
The Office of Archives and History isn't reluctant to recognize other famous American athletes. On Gillespie Street in Fayetteville there's a monument to Babe Ruth's first home run. And on Church Street in Rocky Mount, a marker proclaims that Jim Thorpe, "Indian athlete, star of the 1912 Olympics, made his professional baseball debut with Rocky Mount Railroaders, 1909. Ball park was 300 yds. W."
Thorpe was a Native American, so I'm not suggesting that the state's failure to recognize Johnson is the result of racial bias. And I don't believe that inclusion in the North Carolina Historical Marker Program is based on an honoree's behavior in life. After all, Thorpe drank himself to death, and Ruth's reputation as a hell-raiser and womanizer is well-documented.
I do suspect, however, that Johnson was a little too controversial for his own good. During his 68 years, he did all he could to anger white society, flouting conventions regarding caste and class in America. And he openly challenged the taboo against miscegenation. When a reporter asked him why white women found him so attractive, he answered, "I eat cold eels and think distant thoughts."
In 1913, Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury of violating the Mann Act - "transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes." He was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison. Released on bond pending appeal, Johnson fled to Canada and made his way to Europe, where he lived as a fugitive for seven years. He eventually returned to the United States to serve his sentence.
When judged by the manners and morals of the time, Johnson was a tough customer, but he helped break down racial barriers in America. And he was proud to the end. The affront that led to his death occurred in this state, and we should give serious thought to erecting a historical marker to his memory.
We owe Jack Johnson that.
Stephen Smith lives in Southern Pines. Contact him at email@example.com.
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