A Year of Hope for Joplin and Johnson

In 1910, the boxer Jack Johnson and the musician Scott Joplin embodied a new sense of possibility for African-Americans

Jack Johnson, left, fought Jim Jeffries for more than the undisputed heavyweight title; Scott Joplin aspired to more than "King of Ragtime" renown. (George Arents Collection / New York Public Library / Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations; The Granger Collection, New York)
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Rather than face jail, Johnson fled to France, where he defended his title against a succession of nonentities. He finally lost it in another outdoor ring under a broiling sun in Havana in 1915 to Jess Willard, a former mule seller from Kansas who had risen to become the leading heavyweight contender. Once again, the heavyweight division had a white champion.

In 1920, Johnson returned to the United States to serve his year in prison. Released on July 9, 1921, at age 43, he fought, and mostly lost, a series of inconsequential fights. In 1923, he bought a nightclub on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, Jack Johnson’s Café de Luxe; the gangster Owney Madden took it over and transformed it into the famed Cotton Club. Divorced from Lucille in 1924, Johnson married Irene Pineau, who was also white, a year later. In 1946, racing his Lincoln Zephyr from Texas to New York for the second Joe Louis-Billy Conn heavyweight title fight at Yankee Stadium, he hit a telephone pole near Raleigh, North Carolina. It was the only crash Jack Johnson failed to walk away from. He was 68.

No black man would hold the heavyweight title again until 1937, when Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, scored an eight-round knockout of James J. Braddock, the last of the Irish heavyweight champions.

In New York City, Joplin had undertaken a struggle all his own. Although he couldn’t find a publisher or backers to produce Treemonisha, the composer grew ever more determined to see his masterwork fully staged. According to King of Ragtime, Edward A. Berlin’s 1994 biography of Joplin, there had been a full-cast run-through without orchestra, scenery or costumes some time in 1911 for an audience of 17 people, and in May 1915, Joplin would hear a student orchestra play the Act II ballet, “Frolic of the Bears.” “The only orchestrally performed selection from his opera that Joplin was ever to hear,” Berlin wrote, “was apparently short of success.”

In late 1914, his health failing, Joplin moved with his third wife, Lottie Stokes, to a handsome brownstone in Harlem, where his output of piano rags dwindled to almost nothing. To make ends meet, Lottie took in boarders; in short order she turned the house over to prostitution. Joplin took himself to a studio apartment on West 138th Street and kept working. While awaiting his opera’s fate, he wrote the ineffably poignant “Magnetic Rag” of 1914, which stands as his farewell to the genre.

In October 1915, Joplin began to experience memory loss and other symptoms of what would turn out to be tertiary syphilis, most likely contracted during his youth in the Midwest. He had never been a virtuoso at the piano, and now his skills began to fade. A series of piano rolls he made in 1916 record the decline; a version of “Maple Leaf Rag” he performed for the Uni-Record company is almost painful to hear. According to Berlin, Joplin announced the completion of a musical comedy, If, and the start of his Symphony No. 1, but as his mind deteriorated along with his health, he destroyed many manuscripts, fearing they would be stolen after his death.

In January 1917 he was admitted to Bellevue Hospital, then transferred to the Manhattan State Hospital on Ward’s Island in the East River. He died at age 49 from what his death certificate listed as dementia paralytica on April 1, 1917, and was buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery in Queens. In The New York Age, a black newspaper, editor Lester Walton attributed his death to the failure of Treemonisha.

He had died too soon. A few years later, Harlem’s artistic community reached critical mass, as poets, painters, writers and musicians poured into the area. West 138th Street began to be known by a new name: Striver’s Row. The Harlem Renaissance had begun and would bear its full fruit over the next decade and into the 1930s. Says Lewis: “It was a moment missed, and yet at the same time enduring.”

In 1915, the year Johnson lost the title to Jess Willard, Booker T. Washington joined other black leaders to protest the celebratory racism of D. W. Griffith’s silent film The Birth of a Nation. Exhausted from a lifetime of overwork, Washington collapsed from hypertension in New York City and died in Tuskegee on November 14 at the age of 59.

In 1961, W.E.B. Du Bois concluded that capitalism was “doomed to self-destruction” and joined the Communist Party USA. The man who had cited as his only link to Africa “the African melody which my great-grandmother Violet used to sing” moved to Ghana. He died in 1963, at age 95.


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