Notice that there are many children at the Johnson Camp in Nevada. Wherever the unpleasant racial atmosphere exists around Jack Johnson, it seems not to be in this camp. The emotions aroused by Jack Johnson becoming the first black heavyweight champion (1908-1915) of the world may have had much to do with some of the negative energy concerning the movements of black men, including lynchings and race riots, around the turn of the century. Johnson was a tall, handsome man who enjoyed the "sporting life," drinking, gambling and the company of prostitutes and "loose women," both white and black.
He was extremely well known, even notorious, during his own time because of the rise of the illustrated press, which documented his fights and his every move, because he was photogenic and many photographs were taken of him, and finally because his prize-winning bouts with white opponents were filmed and shown in movie theatres where they drew large audiences, composed of both blacks and white. Not enough is understood of how these films were viewed, whether they were exhibited in the South, whether blacks and white viewed them together.
We do know that his triumphs did result in some race riots and that many whites were uncomfortable with the way black communities celebrated his victories.
His career took place during the peak of anti-black violence in the United States and yet it is visually clear that Johnson, himself, had a capacity for enjoying life that was rare. The famous documentarian Ken Burns made a documentary on Jack Johnson, Unforgiveable Blackness, not one of my favorite films. Johnson was a vastly more interesting and complicated man, someone who served as a role model for many adventurous and creative black men to follow, including James Earl Jones (who played him on stage and in the wonderful film The Great White Hope), the trumpeter Miles Davis who did an album in tribute to him in 1970, and the boxer Muhammed Ali, who was also a world champion boxer.
Contrary to Burns' tragic perspective on Johnson, he actually lived for decades after he was no longer a champion, as the proprietor of a popular Harlem nightspot. He died in a car accident in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1946. He was 68. His life story epitomizes the era in which he lived. I guess for white men just being a black man at the turn-of-the century would appear tragic but it is important to realize that there will always be some individuals just don't scare. Johnson is a classic African American type, made famous in folklore and African American popular culture, represented for instance in the figure of John Henry, a steel-driving man.