Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Great White Hope

I’m sure that all of us who are old enough to remember films from the 1970’s is familiar with the film The Great White Hope, starring James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander.  This was originally written as a play in 1967 and then adapted for the screen in 1970.  The Great White Hope told a fictional life story of boxing champion Jack Johnson (James Earl Jones).  “Acting as a lens focused on a racist society, The Great White Hope explores how segregation and prejudice created the demand for a ‘great white hope’ who would defeat Johnson and how this, in turn, affected the boxer's life and career” [Wikipedia].  I remember loving the film (I always love a good romance) and watching the relationship between James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander – an African American man and a white woman falling in love was somewhat risqué in 1970.

So what does that have to do with my family history?  Well until recently when I came across a photo, I would have said “not much”.  But there in front of me was an interesting photo with a few clues.

Sig 1910 Ben Lomond

It’s a little hard to see, although I knew that was my grandfather, Sig Levy, on the right.  So, I enlarged it and cropped it a bit.

Sig 1910 Ben Lomond Close up

Hmmm, it still doesn’t tell me much.  I knew my grandfather was active with Raisin Day festivities so this wasn’t too surprising.  I turned the photo over to see if there was anything written on the back and once again, I was disappointed that there was nothing to give me a clue.

Sig 1910 Ben Lomond Back

Wait!  If I looked real closely, turned the photo just right and held it up to the light, I could see something written on the back.  It looked like my grandfather’s handwriting and since it was written in pencil, it was very hard to read.  So I got out my glasses and was able to make out the words:

“Taken when Jeffries was champion of the world.  At Ben Lomond training for the Johnson fight.”

Interesting to be sure but I still didn’t know much more than I had before that.  And then I did what anyone in 2014 would do – I opened google and typed in “Jeffries Ben Lomond world champion” and a new world was opened up to me – the world of James Jackson Jeffries (1875-1953), the boxing heavyweight champion of the world from 1899-1906!  And then I read that he trained in Rowardennan Redwood Park, which was built in 1895 and was at the southern edge of Ben Lomond.  Jeffries had come out of retirement in 1910 in order to fight John Arthur “Jack” Johnson, the African American man who was crowned Heavyweight champion of the world in 1908.  Throughout his boxing career, Jeffries refused to fight Black boxers so this must have been quite a story.

The Great White Hope was the reference to the boxers whom the white people hoped would finally defeat Johnson and the first person to accept the challenge was Jim Jeffries.  By 1910 Jeffries had been retired for 5 years and had ballooned from his fighting weight of about 220 pounds to a whopping 330 pounds.  He chose Ben Lomond as his training site and for three months beginning in April, 1910, Jim Jeffries trained so that he could be back in shape for the fight to be held in Reno on July 4, 1910.

James Jeffries SF Chronicle 13 Jun 1910 page 8
San Francisco Chronicle
June 13, 1910
Page 8

There was much at stake for both Jim Jeffries and Jack Johnson.  Of course, Jack Johnson wanted to defend his crown and Jim Jeffries wanted to be the hero for the white people of the world.  But cash was involved - $65,000 (1.65 million in today’s dollars) was paid to Jack Johnson and $120,000 (3 million today) for Jim Jeffries.  And to the people who wanted to witness the fight in person – the Oakland Tribune reported on June 25 1910 (page 16) that a round trip ticket from Oakland to Reno on Southern Pacific Railroad would set them back $11.15, or about $278.75 in today’s dollars.  But I’m sure the 20,000 people who were in attendance at the ring built just for the occasion didn’t care as they just wanted to be part of history. 

James Jeffries vs Jack Johnson
James Jeffries and Jack Johnson
July 4, 1910
Reno, Nevada
photo by Wikipedia

Jack Johnson won the fight and retained his heavyweight title until 1915 when he lost to Jess Willard, a white boxer.  Johnson died in a car crash near Raleigh, North Carolina on June 10, 1946 after he raced away in anger from a diner that refused to serve him.  He was buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, initially in an unmarked grave.  Jim Jeffries died of a heart attack on March 3, 1953 and is buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.

I’ll never know if my grandfather met Jim Jeffries or if he even saw him train in Boulder Creek in 1910.  But by being there and taking a photo, and more importantly writing on the back of the photo, I’ve learned a lot about The Great White Hope.  Who knew?

1 comment:

  1. That's a wonderful story, Debi. These random photos that have come to us can give real insight into our ancestors' world when we follow the clues.