Jack Johnson’s name was once recognized around the globe. The first black heavyweight world champion, his 1908 win over Tommy Burns made him an instant celebrity in a time when racism ran rampant. Johnson’s story had faded into history until Ken Burns and his collaborator Geoffrey C. Ward created a documentary dedicated to the boxer that aired on PBS last winter. Ward also wrote a companion biography, “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” that is one of the 2005 winners of Case Western Reserve University’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, which recognize titles that have made vital contributions to the understanding of racism or the appreciation of cultural diversity. We recently spoke to Ward about his book and Johnson’s life.
Q: How did the idea of telling Jack Johnson’s story come about?
A: It was originally an idea of the co-producer of the show, Dave Shea, who had always wanted to do something on Jack Johnson. … I knew he was a complicated guy and it is a complicated story, and we wanted to get it right. We were busy with other things. We did “Jazz” in the interim. But once we got started, it was absolutely riveting.
Q: You used a lot of newspapers in your research. What did they provide?
A: Jack Johnson was the most celebrated black man on earth, and maybe the most celebrated American during his reign. He was endlessly covered in the papers. … I [reviewed] five or six papers very extensively, plus called upon collectors all over the country who have old papers. Everything he did was covered. It was often very misrepresented, but it was covered.
Q: What surprised you the most during your research?
A: As an aged historian, I thought I had a pretty good sense of how deep American racism was around the turn of the 20th century, which was really the worst period after slavery for black Americans. But until I read the newspaper articles about Jack Johnson, I had no idea how awful it was. … Editors and writers didn’t seem to mind. And it was in Northern papers as well as Southern ones.
Q: What captured the world’s imagination about Johnson?
A: He was the first black man to fight for and win the heavyweight title. That was supposed to be the purview of whites only. To be the heavyweight champion of the world at that time was to be what Gerald Early in our film calls the “emperor of masculinity.” You’re supposed to be the strongest, most virile, meanest guy on earth. If that guy was a black guy in a world white people ran, something was seriously wrong with the system. So he became an object of fascination and fear, I think, on both sides of the Atlantic.
The 2005 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony will be held Sept. 14 at 5:30 p.m. at the Cleveland Play House. Visit www.anisfield-wolf.org for more information.