‘Fight of the century’ took place 100 years ago in Reno…and Pittsburgh

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by Jared Day

On July 4, 1910, more than 20,000 spectators watched one of the most anticipated and controversial boxing matches in U.S. history when former heavyweight champion, James “Jim” Jeffries challenged the reigning champion of the world, John Arthur “Jack” Johnson, in Reno, Nevada. What made this the “fight of the century” was that Jeffries was White and Johnson was Black, and it was widely viewed as a signal battle between the races.

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FIGHT OF THE CENTURY—1910 newspaper clipping shows James Jeffries on the canvas after being downed by Jack Johnson.

Whites tended to view a possible Johnson triumph with both scorn and fear. Scorn due to the widely held contempt Whites felt for African-Americans during this era considered by most scholars as the nadir in race relations in post-Reconstruction America and fear for what Black populations across the country might do in their exhilaration over a Johnson victory.

For several weeks, the prospect of the fight raised racial tensions in cities and towns across the country and none more so than in Pittsburgh. Like many northern industrial cities, Pittsburgh’s Black community was largely segregated with its biggest concentration in the Hill District. African-Americans in the Hill anticipated a Johnson victory. Local boxing fans were familiar with the current champion’s power and style. Indeed, he had fought a championship fight with Frank Moran in Pittsburgh as recently as April, 1909. On July 3, many Black groups in the Hill began organizing parties and parades, and a local hotel proprietor hired a band.

Making up approximately 45 percent of the Hill’s population in in 1910, Blacks shared the community with significant numbers of White working-class immigrants including European Jews, Poles, Hungarians, Greeks and Russians. For months, local Greeks and Russians clashed with Blacks in the area. As the fight date approached, local White ward gangs such as the “Red Onions,” “Owls,” “Forty-niners” and others who, according to the New York Tribune, “would not hesitate to start a race riot, have infested the district.” Apparently, the gangs planned to get on housetops and bombard parading African-Americans with bricks and other missiles. Other local Whites went to the police, telling them that if Blacks were allowed to celebrate, “there would be trouble.” Police warned celebration organizers that any proposed celebration “would not be tolerated.”

Thus, as fight day dawned, an unusually explosive environment existed in Pittsburgh.

What followed in Reno was one of the classic fights in U.S. boxing history with Johnson slowly, methodically pummeling Jeffries and dominating him almost from the start. Over the course of an hour and 43 minutes, Johnson picked apart Jeffries’s defenses, all the while taunting him (“You getting tired, Jeff?”) and mocking members of the almost all-White audience as well as Jeffries’ coach at the corner of the ring, former champion, James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett (not so great a gentleman in Reno, though, as he had been hurling racial slurs at Johnson all through the match). In the 15th round, Johnson knocked Jeffries down twice, leaving his opponent with a broken nose and covered in his own blood. From the corner, Corbett threw in the towel, conceding Jeffries’ defeat and a Johnson victory.

News of Johnson’s triumph spread quickly across the country, and African-American communities almost everywhere began celebrating. Large-scale racial disturbances followed in cities such as St. Louis; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Chicago, and many others. Pittsburgh not only followed suit but probably experienced the worst racial violence during this day of national racial unrest.

In Pittsburgh, in spite of police warnings the previous day, post-fight festivities began with large groups of Blacks promenading and singing up and down Wylie Avenue. Some celebrants heckled or sang to White motorists and White passengers on the Wylie Avenue trolley. Even these relatively mild racial transgressions, however, were enough to move the police and other groups of Whites to respond.

The situation quickly turned violent as clashes erupted between groups of White Russian and Greek immigrants and celebrating African-Americans, picking up the same conflict that had been kept under wraps for weeks, according to The New York Times. Police targeted almost any large gathering of Blacks in the Hill. Initially they focused on a thousand local Blacks who were trying to form for the parade on Wylie Avenue. The police charged the group, prompting a flood of bricks and other debris from the crowd.

The sequence of events that followed is not entirely clear. News sources relay that an hours-long upheaval ensued involving hundreds of local Blacks and the Pittsburgh police. The unrest was centered along a mile-long stretch of Wylie Avenue and Fulton Street. The police tried to cordon off the area, blocking traffic and trolley service but apparently these efforts failed. According to The New York Times, “three separate calls for police reserves brought every White patrolman on the reserve list to the Hill.” Following the arrest of 50 African-Americans, the police had quelled the unrest by the end of the day, leaving four Blacks in the hospital and two White officers injured.

What was the result of the Johnson-Jeffries uprising in Pittsburgh? In its aftermath, one of the most telling aspects is the gradual silence that enveloped this event, particularly by mid-century observers looking back on Pittsburgh’s racial history. Later histories of the era make no mention of the Johnson fight riot, and, by the mid-1960s, it became a point of pride among local White and Black authorities that, unlike other urban centers in the 1960s, Pittsburgh had never had a large-scale race riot and that it was somehow immune from such uprisings. This lore further maintains that it took Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 to spark this type of substantive racial conflict. Thus, on this centennial of the Jeffries-Jackson fight, a notable moment in the history of race and sport in the United States, it’s important that Pittsburghers recall a notable event in its own inter-racial past.

(Jared Day teaches African- American, urban and environmental history at CMU. He co-authored with Joe Trotter, the just-released book, “Race and Renaissance: African Americans in Pittsburgh Since World War II,” published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.)

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