On that fourth of July afternoon 100 years ago, the eyes of the world turned to a makeshift wooden arena that had been hastily assembled in Reno, Nevada. Special deputies confiscated firearms, and movie cameras rolled as a crowd estimated at 20,000 filled the stands surrounding a boxing ring. The celebrities at ringside included fight royalty—John L. Sullivan and James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett—and the novelist Jack London. For the first time in U.S. history, two champions—one reigning, the other retired but undefeated—were about to square off to determine the rightful heavyweight king of the world. But more than a title was at stake.
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In one corner stood James Jackson Jeffries, the “Boilermaker,” who had retired undefeated six years earlier to farm alfalfa in sunny Burbank, California. The Ohio native had lived in Los Angeles since his teenage years, fighting his way up the ranks until he defeated the British-born Bob Fitzsimmons for the heavyweight championship in 1899. But now, at 35, Jim Jeffries was long past his prime. Six feet one and a half inches tall, he weighed 227 pounds, only two above his old fighting weight—but he had shed more than 70 to get there.
In the other corner was John “Jack” Arthur Johnson, the “Galveston Giant,” who had taken the title a year and a half before from Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, beating the Canadian fighter so badly that the referee stopped the fight in the 14th round. At 206 pounds, Johnson was lighter than Jeffries, but he was also three years younger, only an inch and a quarter shorter and immeasurably fitter. His head was shaved and his smile flashed gold and everything about him seemed larger than life, including his love of clothes, cars and women. Johnson had everything in his favor except that he was African-American.
A New York Times editorial summed up a common view: “If the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than physical equality with their white neighbors.” Jeffries was blunter: “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”
One of the nation’s first celebrity athletes, Jack Johnson also provided a rough foreshadowing of the political theories of a 42-year-old educator from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, named W.E.B. Du Bois. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was the first African-American to receive a PhD from Harvard and was a founder of the new National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He had concluded that to achieve racial equality, black people would first have to seize political power by organizing, demanding their rights and not backing down.
Such were the stakes when the bell rang for the first round of what would be called the Fight of the Century.
At about the same time, another African-American was making history on the other side of the country. In a boardinghouse at 128 West 29th Street in New York City—a block from Tin Pan Alley—Scott Joplin was feverishly putting the finishing touches on the libretto and score of an opera he was certain would be his masterpiece: Treemonisha.
A mild-mannered, self-effacing man who was in almost every way the opposite of Jack Johnson, Joplin had shot to fame in 1899 with the publication of the “Maple Leaf Rag,” the first million-selling piece of instrumental sheet music in America. Born in the last half of 1867 near Texarkana, Texas, to Giles and Florence Joplin, a freedman and a freeborn woman, he grew up with five siblings on the black side of town. He studied piano with a German-born teacher named Julius Weiss, who exposed him to European musical culture. Joplin left home early, kicked around Texas and the Mississippi River Valley as a saloon and bordello pianist, spent time in St. Louis and Chicago, and took music courses at the George R. Smith College in Sedalia, Missouri, about 90 miles east of Kansas City. In 1907, after a failed marriage and the death of his second wife, Joplin moved to New York.
Although Joplin did not invent ragtime—his friend Tom Turpin, a saloonkeeper in St. Louis’ Chestnut Valley sporting district in the late 19th century, was one of a few forerunners—he raised what had been a brothel entertainment into the realm of high art, taking the four-square beat of the traditional march, adding a touch of African syncopation and throwing in the lyricism of bel canto operas and Chopin nocturnes. Joplin, however, wanted more than fame as the “King of Ragtime.”
Joplin adhered to the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, who traced his rise out of bondage in the celebrated autobiography Up from Slavery and founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Where Du Bois, the scion of a family of New England landholders, aimed his message at what he called the “Talented Tenth” of the African-American population, Booker Taliaferro Washington advocated a by-the-bootstraps approach for the masses, one that accepted segregation as a necessary, temporary evil while African-Americans overcame the baleful legacy of slavery. Born in 1856, the son of a white man and a slave woman in Virginia, he preached that training and education were the keys to racial advancement. The Negro, he maintained, had to demonstrate equality with the European by exhibiting the virtues of patience, industry, thrift and usefulness. “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers,” he said in his famous Atlanta Compromise speech of 1895, “yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”