On July 4, 1910, African American champion boxer Jack Johnson (1878-1946) whooped white boxer James Jeffries (1875-1953). When Johnson won, a white mob attacked African Americans in Omaha. A Black man was dead by the next day.
With rumors of a massive bout with white fighter James Jeffries (1875-1953), Omaha boxing promoters offered $100,000 for the city to host the fight. While the fight ended up in Reno, Nevada, Omaha extended a welcoming hand to Johnson when he came through in April of that year.
Notorious African American crime lords Jack Bloomfield (1865-1927) and William Crutchfield (1875-1917) were the champ’s unofficial hosts in Omaha for several days. A crowd of 3,000 people gathered at the Union Station to meet Johnson and his white wife, who were given flowers by white girls and treated to a parade through downtown Omaha. Staying at the white-only Murray Hotel, Johnson was treated to fancy meals, special events and more throughout the city. He gave an exhibition at the Gayety Theater and a ball and reception were held in his honor. However, despite all of that apparent goodwill, white people in Omaha quickly turned its back on Johnson’s image.
The fight was billed as “The Fight of the Century“, and was the most significant heavy weight championship bout to that date. It was followed closely across the nation, and when Johnson won, telegraphs and radio across the country announced the upset, and almost immediately riots started, with the first being in Brooklyn.
A day later a news reel of the fight was released, and while many cities banned it for fear of full-fledged rioting, Omaha did not. Mobs of whites roamed throughout North Omaha rioting, targeting blacks in the streets and in their homes, as they did in cities across the U.S. The white mobs wounded several African Americans men in the Near North Side, and by the end of the riot, one Black man was dead.
The victim of the mob was Tom Green, a respected African American leader in the community. The city’s newspapers told the story of Green “dying of fright” after an ill-executed prank by “friends.” However, newspapers in other cities readily admitted he was killed by the mob and was set up to look like an accident after Green won a large amount of money on the boxing match. No perpetrators of this so-called prank were ever named, and the case wasn’t followed by local newspapers.
Another African American man named Henry Anderson was reportedly killed over the fight outcomes by Lige “Red” Dale, another Black man, that same day.
Apparently, the mayor closed the city’s saloons immediately, which was attributed for the violence not escalating further. Another report said “jails full of negroes” stopped the violence, which is an ironic blaming of Black people for white hatred. The rioting wasn’t isolated to Omaha, with more than two dozen Black people being killed in post-fight violence nationwide.
Despite that rioting, Johnson made several appearances in Omaha in the next several years, and reportedly maintained a close friendship with Billy Crutchfield. When he came through Omaha on the train, he often gave exhibitions and was lauded as a hero.
Today, Omaha is still in denial about the role of race in it’s history; the author of a recent Omaha World Herald article wrote about President Obama pardoning Jack Johnson without mentioning Omaha’s history with him. Without a African American mayor in it’s history, and only recently having an African American police chief for the first time, the city is firmly in denial of the legacy these negative events have in the city. Accompanied with other race riots in the city’s history, the Jack Johnson riot scarred the conscience and soul of a city that could be so much more.
You Might Like…
- A History of Mob Terrorism in Omaha
- A Timline of Race and Racism in North Omaha
- A History of the North Omaha Riots
- North Omaha History Podcast Episode 5: Omaha’s Jack Johnson Riot – Adam Fletcher Sasse takes us back to the turn of the last century and exams the roots of riots and civil unrest in Omaha. He starts by examining the notorious bout of world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson vs. James Jeffries in Reno Nevada in 1910, and explores what’s happened in Omaha before and after that. (March 20, 2017; 13 mins) Listen online or download on iTunes.