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— William Howard Taft

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Was Pardoned Boxer Jack Johnson a Freemason?


For a whole raft of reasons – not least of which being the toxic political climate in the U.S. these days – last week's posthumous presidential pardon of the early 20th century African-American boxing legend Jack Johnson by Donald Trump has gone almost completely unreported in the American press, even in the sports world.



John Arthur "Jack" Johnson was born near Galveston, Texas in 1878, the son of former slaves, and one of nine children. Despite growing up in the segregated South during the most virulent period of Jim Crow laws, Johnson achieved worldwide fame as a boxer, and eventually held the heavyweight title from 1908 to 1915. He was often tagged with the nickname "The Galveston Giant," as he stood 6-feet 6-inches tall, and generally towered over his opponents.

And at the age of 33, he joined Forfar and Kincardine Lodge No. 225 in Scotland.


Jack Johnson spoke of his childhood in Galveston as growing up in a racially mixed community where no one much cared what color anyone was. Economy was the great leveler, and they were all in extreme poverty, regardless of color. Race was hardly an issue to young Jack, but outside of the confines of his neighborhood was a different matter. 

Johnson refused to pay deference to the color line in America. He began boxing in 1898. He achieved national, and then international fame, claiming the title of “World Colored Heavyweight Champion” in 1903, and becoming overall World Heavyweight Champion in 1908 after winning a fight in Australia against Tommy Burns, a white boxer from Canada. Burns was one of the very few white championship fighters at the time who was willing to cross the racial barrier in boxing and take on black opponents. But Johnson's victory over him stunned the world, and especially America.


After Johnson won the heavyweight title, racial animosity against him back home became fierce. He continued to beat a string of opponents, but that was problematic at the time, since many white boxers refused to battle blacks in the ring, especially when championships were on the line. Those who did were quickly purported to be the next "great white hope" who would finally knock out this strutting, arrogant black boxer, who ceaselessly taunted them in and out of the ring.



Johnson continued to enrage and alienate many whites by crossing the color line in his personal life. He dated white women, and eventually went on to marry three of them in his lifetime. He was also the rare black man of his era who was brash and totally unapologetic about his wealth and success. He loved fast cars, and was frequently arrested for speeding (and more than a few times subsequently sued for failing to appear at a fight because he was in jail).

The purported "Fight of the Century" finally took place on July 4, 1910 against James Jeffries at a ring built just for the occasion in downtown Reno, Nevada. Jeffries was a retired former undefeated heavyweight champion who had repeatedly refused to box against Johnson or any other blacks in prior years, but he was ceaselessly pressured to become the ultimate "Great White Hope" who would knock Johnson from his perch. When he finally agreed to the fight, Jeffries was quoted as saying, "I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro." 

It didn't work out that way.

James Jeffries and Jack Johnson fight in 1911
The fight was enormously promoted nationwide. Invitations to referee the contest went to public figures as wide ranging as William Howard Taft and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The fight itself was scheduled for 45 three-minute rounds, and the day of the fight was a 110° scorcher. The crowd of 20,000 was filled with some of the greatest living boxers of the period who had come from all over the world to see the event. But when things got underway, it was clear that Jeffries had no chance. After fifteen rounds, the beaten and badly out of shape Jeffries was knocked to the ground, and his manager stopped the fight at last. Johnson was declared the winner against the latest Great White Hope

The fight was the basis for both a 1967 play and a 1970 movie (featuring James Earl Jones) entitled The Great White Hope, and the phrase itself entered into the American lexicon.

After the fight ended, word went out by telegraph, and black Americans celebrated nationwide in spontaneous parades. But whites took to the streets in protest, as well. Race riots broke out in 50 cities across 25 states, resulting in at least 26 deaths (all but two of them of blacks). Hundreds more were injured, and police stopped several attempted lynchings. Two high-profile Southern ministers even called for Johnson's own lynching. Attempts were made to prevent the showing of films of the fight and censor Johnson's victory from the public eye, and a federal law forbidding exhibiting boxing films across state lines was soon passed in its wake. That law stood until 1940.

In the wake of the riots, Johnson left the country and traveled to Europe. In 1911, he was fighting in exhibitions across the British Isles. He was visiting Scotland, and it was there that he became an Entered Apprentice in Dundee's Forfar and Kincardine Lodge No. 225 under the Grand Lodge of Scotland.

During his spell on the run he fought in exhibition matches in Newcastle in 1911.
Army officer Sydney McLaglen was also boxing there and told Johnson about his Masonic lodge.
He told Johnson he was due to travel to Dundee to have his second degree conferred and asked if it would be possible to go with him and join the lodge.
The heavyweight champion travelled up from Newcastle and on October 13 1911, became a Freemason in Forfar and Kincardine, No. 225 Lodge, in Dundee.
Past Master Graham Letford said: “Grand Lodge sent a telegram to the Provincial Grand Lodge of Forfarshire ordering them to stop the initiation.
“But the door was locked during Jack Johnson’s initiation and when the telegram arrived the deed had already been done.
“This cost the master at the time a two-year suspension. Two other past masters received one-year suspensions and the lodge had its charter lifted for 18 months.”
Johnson left by train for Newcastle after the ceremony.
A reporter from the Dundee Advertiser spoke to Johnson in Leeds who told him he was proud to belong to the Craft.
Johnson said: “All I want is fair treatment, and I don’t want nothing bestowed on me I don’t deserve, if there is anything to say, well it’s for the Lodge and other people.
“I’m all right.”
“But there is no doubt about it you are a Mason?” asked the reporter.
“Oh certainly,” said Johnson. “They can’t say anything about me”.
He denied that there was any “squabble” and refused to say anything further on that point.
“You have a high opinion of Freemasonry then?” he was asked.
Johnson replied: “It’s the greatest thing in the world, it’s wonderful.
“I have always wanted to be a member and I chose the Dundee lodge because it is one of the oldest and one of the most substantial.
“I am proud I can tell you. I am a Freemason and as long as I live I shall be one. Only God almighty can undo that.”
Johnson concluded by emphatically stating he would certainly go back to Dundee to have his second degree conferred some time in early December.
The champion did not return to Dundee following the 18-month suspension of the Lodge.
So what was the crime for which the President pardoned him last week? Violating the Mann Act in 1912 by taking an unmarried woman across state lines for "immoral purposes" – a law originally designed to curtail prostitution and human trafficking. The federal law was more commonly known as the White Slave Act, and had been passed to save young women from being preyed upon by purportedly perfidious foreigners and lured into prostitution in hard, faceless cities in the early 1900s. This was also the period of Prohibition, and "public decency" was the hot button issue of the moment. 

As originally passed in 1910, the Mann Act made it a felony to engage in interstate or foreign commerce transport of "any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose." But the law was also frequently applied as an all-purpose nuisance charge against interracial couples, and Johnson had a preference for white ladies. 


Jack Johnson and Lucille Cameron
Consequently, on October 14, 1912, Jack Johnson was arrested on the grounds that his relationship with Lucille Cameron (who later became his second wife) violated the White Slave Traffic Act. However, Lucille refused to cooperate with prosecutors (her mother branded her as "insane"), and the case fell apart. Federal agents were desperate to make charges stick against him and kept digging. Johnson was released, but was soon rearrested after investigators found a prostitute named Belle Schreiber from his past willing to testify against him in open court. Within days, a grand jury issued seven Mann Act indictments.

According to the Legal Legacy blog site:
In the courtroom of Kenesaw Mountain Landis (the future Commissioner of Baseball who perpetuated the baseball color line until his death), Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury in June 1913. It took them less than two hours to find Johnson guilty on all counts. Despite the fact that the incidents used to convict Johnson took place before passage of the Mann Act, he was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.
On June 24, while out on bail pending appeal, Johnson fled the country to Montreal where he met up with Lucille, and then went on to France. He would remain out of the U.S. for seven years, and it was common for American papers to refer to him as “negro pugilist and convicted white slaver.”

At last, on July 20, 1920 Johnson returned, surrendering to federal agents at the Mexican border, and was sent to the United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth to serve his sentence. He was released on July 9, 1921.

Johnson had lost the world heavyweight championship title in 1915. After his stint in prison, his boxing career was essentially over and he never recovered his fame. But in a curious connection to history, Johnson opened the original Harlem nightclub in the early 20s that would eventually be sold to gangster Owney Madden, and renamed as the legendary Cotten Club.

Jack Johnson died in a car accident on 
June 10, 1946 near Raleigh, North Carolina after angrily driving off from a white owned diner that refused to serve him. He was 68 years old. 

He was buried in an unmarked grave in Chicago.

The pardon last week was certainly celebrated by the Masonic Brethren in Dundee, and Jack Johnson remains the most famous member of Forfar and Kincardine Lodge as far as they are concerned. According to a 2009 letter in the Daily Mail from Lodge 225's Past Master Gordon Webster, the Grand Lodge of Scotland was pressured by U.S. grand lodges at the time to force the lodge to return Johnson's three guinea initiation fee and nullify his degree. But the lodge's members and officers held fast and refused, even after Johnson's legal problems in the U.S. since he had not violated any British laws. 

However, WB Webster's letter and the article last week in the Courier both conflict with an account by the University of Dundee and their archives. They hold the legal documents pertaining to the dustup between the lodge and their Grand Lodge, and in the December 2009 issue of Contact, the University's magazine, the following account of the events appears (p. 28):
During the closing part of the initiation ceremony a telegram was dispatched to Dundee from the Grand Lodge of Scotland demanding that the proceedings cease immediately before Johnson had beenfully initiated.
However, the local Master decided that it was too late and continued with the ceremony regardless. The Grand Lodge subsequently suspended the Forfarshire Lodge and this led to the legal battle recorded in the documents held by Archive Services.
The Grand Lodge maintained that for reasons relating to masonic protocol the Forfarshire Lodge had acted improperly and irregularlyin admitting Johnson, but the real problem was that some members of the Lodge in Dundee had objected to Johnson’s initiation onthe grounds of his colour. Upon seeing that he was to be admitted anyway, they telegraphed their fellow freemasons in America – and white American feelings ran high about the man who in the boxing ring had defeated several ‘Great White Hopes’.
Most Grand Lodges in the USA threatened to withdraw their Scottish Grand Lodge representation and this was why the Grand Lodge had somewhat frantically attempted to halt Johnson’s initiation ceremony.
The position of the Grand Lodge ultimately prevailed – some members of the local Lodge were suspended and Johnson had his fees returned. Any mention of his acceptance as an Entered Apprentice was removed from the records. However a record of this somewhat shameful episode in Scottish history does survive in the University Archives. Anyone interested in the items is welcome to see them in the Archives search room.
So, there's the conflict in the various claims and counterclaims, and Grand Lodge of Scotland historian Bob Cooper's account agrees with the University's. 

In any case, there is no further evidence that Johnson ever went on to complete his Fellow Craft and Master Mason degrees in any mainstream or Prince Hall lodge in the U.S. or outside of the country. 

Nevertheless, Past Master Gordon Webster of his lodge in Dundee said in his letter, 
"As far as Forfar and Kincardine Lodge is concerned, the Great Jack Johnson is, and will forever remain, a Freemason. I'm proud of my past brethren and proud that Jack Johnson was a member of my lodge."


Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama passed up numerous requests from Congress and the public to posthumously pardon Jack Johnson starting ten years ago, and the Justice department argued against it for many years (because of Johnson's history of domestic abuse of women throughout his life – his first wife committed suicide, and Lucille divorced him after just three years). Nevertheless, Senator John McCain and Harry Reid both pressed for the pardon, and filmmaker Ken Burns made a documentary about him in an attempt to keep the issue in the public eye. 

Donald Trump finally signed the official full pardon on May 24th in an Oval Office ceremony with Sylvester Stallone, Linda Haywood (a relative of Johnson's), World Boxing Commission president Mauricio Sulaiman Saldivar, former boxer Lennox Lewis, and current champion Deontay Wilder. Counting Johnson's, there have only been three posthumous pardons signed by presidents in U.S. history.





UPDATE May 27, 2018 5:30PM

Simon LaPlace from the Masonic Service Association just passed along a reprinted article I was unable to find from 2009 in the Daily Mail, and later appeared in the Connecticut Freemason magazine. It contains more details of Johnson's introduction to Freemasonry and the lodge while in Scotland, but the accounts are unattributed. Unless someone has firsthand written accounts, it's hard to say whether these are fanciful embellishments after over 100 years or not. And they don't answer the question of whether or not the lodge nullified his EA degree after the Grand Lodge's actions. Click image to enlarge.






1 comment:

  1. At the time of his initiation, the Pall Mall Gazette, a London evening paper that often carried Masonic news and included Bro. Oscar Wilde as a contributor carried a long discussion of the initiation: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/45176366
    One wonders if those of the "naughty nine", the "regular"Southern grand lodges that continue to shun Prince Hall masonry, will include Johnson in those ubiquitous lists of famous Masons,

    ReplyDelete

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