Saturday, May 7, 2016

Whiskey, Race, and “The Fight of the Century”

The advertising photo below is fascinating to me both for what it seems to say — and what it doesn’t.  The 20th Century really had only begun in 1910 when a boxing match between Jack Johnson, a black man and reigning heavyweight champion, and James Jeffries, the former champ and “Great White Hope” was being ballyhooed as “The Fight of the Century.”  The James E. Pepper Distillery that  had touted its lily white early American past and shown African-Americans in servile roles, changed course radically, sponsored the event, and seemed to be taking sides.
This prize fight had taken on highly symbolic meaning for millions of Americans, white and black.  Johnson had an uncanny ability to antagonize white people.  As one author has put it:  “He threatened the paradigm of white superiority with his prowess in the ring and he offended moralists with his lifestyle.”   That lifestyle included arrests for speeding and other infractions, drinking and carousing, and flaunted relationships with white women.  

A postcard of the time expressed the attitude of many.  It showed the white fighting cock (Jeffries) driving a right and a left to the head of the black rooster (Johnson) who appears to be knocked out.

What then motivated the James E. Pepper people to merchandise its whiskey through a man that was widely disliked and reviled, largely for being black?  The founder of the distillery, James Pepper, was a Kentucky Southerner who advertised his products by harking back to a time before the Civil War.  “Born with the Revolution” was the company slogan adorned by images of Lady Liberty and (all-white) Continental soldiers.   
Nor was Pepper above portraying African-Americans in servile occupations.  Like other whiskey purveyors at the time, the Lexington distiller advertising widely with a “Uncle Tom” figure — bald with a fringe of kinky white hair — serving Pepper whiskey and a glass. The ad emphasized “Not Just Age Alone, but Purity.”   A similar black figure, this one grinning, was on a postcard that featured a billboard advertising “Old Jas. E. Pepper Whisky.” (Pepper spelled it without the “e”.)
By the time of the Johnson-Jeffries fight, however, the management had changed at the distillery.  In May 1907 a group of Chicago investors, headed by Joseph Wolf had bought the distillery and brand names from Pepper’s widow.   For seven years before the purchase Wolf had managed the distribution of the Kentucky whiskey from his Chicago offices.  After re-incorporating the enterprise, he began making improvements to the distillery and bottling operations and expanding production.  He also stepped up the marketing effort for Pepper whiskey.  

In a bold move, Wolf and his colleagues apparently decided to buck two traditions in the liquor trade:  1) staying away from association with prize fighting because of its unpopularity with a large segment of the public and its illegality in many states and 2) avoiding marketing directly to blacks.   The Pepper distillery sought and got sponsorship of the “Fight of the Century” and thereby entre into the large population of color that idolized Jack Johnson.  

The venue for the match continued to be vexing for the promoters.  An agreement had been reached that the fight would take place in California, Utah or Nevada.  When officials in both San Francisco and Salt Lake City vowed to ban the contest, it gravitated to Reno, Nevada.  Reno, however, posed a particular problem for Jeffries.  Five years earlier, not long after retiring from the ring, Jeffries had frequented the roulette table at Reno’s Louvre saloon and gambling hall, shown above, and dropped $5,000 in a night.  Instead of paying up, the former World Heavyweight Champ gave his IOU, a note he failed to pay off during the ensuing years.   Now that he was headed back to Nevada, the Louvre management went to court and a sympathetic judge set a trial date.  Jeffries, or the fight promoter, Tex Richard, promptly paid the debt.

The fight date was set for the Fourth of July, 1910.  From the outset, as one observer has it:   “The upcoming fight would be relentless hyped as a titanic clash of races, leaving little room for objectivity…Most Americans believed that Johnson was mentally and physically inferior and conversely believed in Jeffries’ invincibility.”  In truth, Jeffries was several years away from his prime as a boxer, overweight and rusty from being on a vaudeville circuit rather than in the ring.  By contrast,  Johnson for all his boozing and racy lifestyle was at the peak of his form.  In reality it was a mismatch, but anointing Jeffries as “the Great White Hope,” gave the combat epic proportions, race against race, gaining national and even international attention.

The decision by Wolf and the Pepper Distillery to back the event seems a genius stroke.  As thousands of people from all over the U.S. and, indeed, the world, crowded into the streets of Reno, the banners that greeted them read “James E. Pepper Whisky “Born with the Republic.”   A photograph of the scene the day before the fight illustrates a banner that could be read for blocks.
On fight day, 17,000 people crowded into the stands erected in the natural basin caused by the Truckee River outside Reno.  Millions more around the world were glued to their radios for the round-by-round narrative.   “At 2:44 the “Battle of the Century” got underway.  By 2:48 it had become the “Beating of the Century.”   Scheduled to go 45 rounds, Johnson was in no hurry to finish off Jeffries.  The photo below shows them still boxing in the 14th Round.  Note the Pepper whiskey sign in the background.   In the very next round a vicious combination by Johnson had Jeffries helpless on the ropes.  Jeffries’ corner “threw in the towel,” acknowledging the defeat.
Although one newspaper opined that it was likely a boon that Johnson won, thus sparing the nation from black rioting, the “Fight of the Century” riots that did occur were white violence triggered by Johnson’s victory.  “Rather than rioting, most blacks tried to keep a low profile and avoided the white mobs until the storm blew over.”

Johnson’s fans would have taken pride in the photo of the heavyweight champ that opens this post, reputedly drinking James E. Pepper whiskey the day before the fight, while surrounded by a crowd of both blacks and whites.   I cannot help but wonder if a similar photograph was taken of Jim Jeffries with Pepper whiskey — just in case. 

Note:   Much of the information for this post was gleaned from a book entitled “The Last Great Prizefight:  Johnson vs. Jeffries,” by Steven Frederick.  Frederick has been a licensed Nevada bookmaker, not a historian or writer, but he has mastered the art of the narrative and it is truly a well-written, interesting and informative book, well worth the read.  All of the direct quotes above are from Frederick’s work.  

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