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.
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.
As he got older, he could beat anybody inside the ring, but whites consistently refused to fight him.
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.
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.”
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.]
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.
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.
Published by Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership, 2010