Monday, July 20, 2020

Jack Johnson's Tragic Love Story

Jack Johnson and Etta Duryea
If you're familiar with the movie The Great White Hope, you probably know that the Jack Jefferson character portrayed by James Earl Jones is based on the real life American boxer Jack Johnson.  During the Jim Crow era, Johnson became the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion (1908-1915).

Geoffrey C. Ward wrote an excellent biography of Johnson entitled Unforgivable Blackness, which was made into a PBS documentary by Ken Burns. 

Johnson's success brought fame and riches, and to the dismay of most of white America at the time, he disregarded the social and economic standard set for blacks in American society.  He flaunted his wealth in fine clothes and fast cars, and broke the taboo of a black man consorting with white women.

The charismatic Johnson was married three times, and all his wives were white. In January  of 1911, Johnson married Etta Duryea, a glamorous Brooklyn socialite who was well educated, played the piano and sang.  She was also the former wife of businessman Charles Duryea, the engineer of the first ever working American gasoline powered car.

Etta was prone to depression, and after news of her marriage to Johnson made it back to Brooklyn, the isolation she suffered from being cut off from family friends, along with Jack's raucous lifestyle, contributed to her suicide in 1912.

In Unforgivable Blackness, Ward recounts how appalled Etta's relatives were that she had married such a man as Jack. At her funeral, one of Etta's family members accused Jack of never having loved her, and to this he said something like, "I have eyes and I have a heart, and they told me I loved her."  (I must confess, I was so touched by that line, I used it myself in my novel The Governor's Sons.)

If you'd like to learn more about the real life Great White Hope, be sure to read Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson or check out the PBS Documentary. Johnson's story is truly a fascinating one!

Had you ever heard of Jack Johnson?

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