Black History Month Kid Lit Review of “Black Jack: The Ballad of Jack Johnson” by Charles R. Smith Jr.

The combination of Charles Smith and Shane Evans adds up to a great piece of work, bringing to life the challenges faced and triumphs achieved by Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world.

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Jack was born in 1878 to freed slaves who taught him he could do anything if he wanted it badly enough. He used to get beat up regularly by neighborhood bullies, but his mother encouraged him to fight back, and soon nobody could touch him. He was also inspired by the stories he read in school about great leaders, and he too dreamed of becoming a great man.

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As he got older, he could beat anybody inside the ring, but whites consistently refused to fight him.

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Finally, Tommy Burns, a white Canadian, agreed to fight Jack in Australia. When Jack was declared the winner, boxing fans around the world cried foul. Racists called out for a “Great White Hope” to take the title away from Johnson. They encouraged the great heavyweight champ, Jim Jeffries, to come out of retirement and prove that whites were superior to blacks.

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Reno, Nevada was the scene of “The Battle of the Century” on July 4, 1910. [Racial tension was so high that guns were prohibited within the arena as was the sale of alcohol or the admittance of anyone showing the effects of alcohol.] After fifteen rounds, Jack made history as “The World’s First Black Heavyweight Champion.”

James J. Jeffries fights Johnson in 1910

James J. Jeffries fights Johnson in 1910

The book ends at this point, but Smith adds an afterword to recount Jack’s continuing problems with his challenges to the color line. For example, Jack had three wives, all of whom were white. This did not sit well with the white establishment. In fact, he was famously convicted in 1913 by an all-white jury for violating the 1910 Mann Act (also known as The White-Slave Traffic Act), which prohibited “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.” (This trial took place in the courtroom of Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the future Commissioner of Baseball who kept blacks out of baseball as long as he was alive.) Jack was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. [This was the same year that the administration of President Woodrow Wilson mandated segregation for all federal agencies in Washington, D.C., including the lunchrooms and bathrooms inside government buildings.]

 Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois


Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois

Tragically, Jack died in a car accident in 1946, after racing angrily from a diner that refused to serve him. He was 68 years old at the time of his death.

Since the time of his death, there have been numerous petitions for him to receive a presidential pardon. To date, one has not been issued.

Jack Johnson in action

Jack Johnson in action

Johnson was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954, and is on the roster of both the International Boxing Hall of Fame and the World Boxing Hall of Fame.

Evaluation: This is an excellent introduction to the story of a brave and determined man, and to the more general topic of acquiring self-esteem in the face of adversity. Simple prose, catchy poetic stanzas, and authentic quotes from the time add interest to the text. Shane Evans contributes both strength and heart to the characters of any book he illustrates.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership, 2010

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8 Responses to Black History Month Kid Lit Review of “Black Jack: The Ballad of Jack Johnson” by Charles R. Smith Jr.

  1. Your review actually gave me chills. I want to read this one. I sadly am unfamiliar with this story.

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    This sounds like an excellent book but my, what a tragic story. The illustrations look gorgeous.

  3. Vasilly says:

    My son read and reviewed this book last month for school. Shane Evans did a wonderful job with this story.

  4. sandynawrot says:

    I’ve never heard of this guy, which is really sad. And that Landis fellow looks like a mean-spirited ass.

  5. I hadn’t hear of him either. I must admit, my impressions of Landis were similar to Sandy’s.

  6. sagustocox says:

    Catchy poetic verses! I’m there with that. I think this might be better for a kid older than mine…naturally.

  7. Rachel says:

    I haven’t heard of Jack Johnson but it sounds like he had a really interesting, if tragic life. Thanks for the review!

  8. stacybuckeye says:

    Wow. What a life. I really abhor boxing, but that really pales in comparison to what he had to put up with.

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