Ninety years ago last May, the world’s first black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson appeared on stage at an Elephant and Castle music hall. The flamboyant Johnson exchanged comic patter with a diminutive British straight man, offered a passable violin accompaniment for his wife Lucille who performed a solo ragtime dance and introduced film of himself in action. The show that night, one of many Johnson gave around the world, has no special place in history other than it coincided with the first Zeppelin air raid on London which brought the fun to an abrupt halt. Johnson grabbed his wife and ran to his waiting car, a white Mercedes Benz. With Johnson at the wheel, the car careered north to Haverstock Hill where the couple had booked into a hotel. ‘No matter how fast I travelled or in what direction I turned,’ Johnson remembered, ‘the bombs were close upon us . . .. the Zeppelin was following us. It was a miracle we were not blown to bits’.
Once again the most celebrated and reviled African American of his age had escaped the enemy in sensational circumstances.
Based upon autobiographical material and contemporary newspaper sources, Geoffrey C Ward’s magisterial book is the definitive portrait of one of America’s greatest sportsmen. Johnson was, of course, a hero to black Americans