The Jack Johnson v. Barney Oldfield match race of 1910; What it says about race in America.
Historians commonly call early twentieth century America the progressive era. With the intrusion of the railroad, and the increasing dependency on industrialism, and the creation of a single national market, small agrarian communities were losing independence. Historian Robert Wiebe argued that the progressive era is characterized by a fundamental shift in values, away from small town values to specialization and communities of professionals. (1) As America emerged into the twentieth century, the society was more industrial and less agrarian than it had been before. The automobile industry is an example of industrial progress that succeeded in spite of great social criticism.
Around the turn of the century, a trend emerged where concerned citizens frequently joined forces and organized around a certain issue or common interest for their collective good. Commensurate with this trend, motorists recognized the advantages of organizing. In 1902, the American Automobile Association was formed in order to represent the rights of motorists. The AAA is a national organization that works through a confederacy of local automobile clubs. The AAA worked as a lobbying organization for laws at all levels of government that protected the motorist, and sought to establish uniform licensing regulations, speed limits, and better roads. As a sideline, the AAA organized what became known as the AAA Contest Board as a sanctioning body to govern motor sports. The AAA's interest in establishing some form of legitimate control over motor sports and speed records was to provide manufacturers with an opportunity to test products. (2) This was a common rationale for automobile racing, and at the time was congruent with the mission of the AAA. Building better automobiles served the constituency of the AAA.
Automobile racing is a strange by-product of an industrial age, growth in technology, popular culture, and the creative and competitive instincts rooted in human nature. A generation of Americans recognized the name Barney Oldfield as a synonym for speed. For the first half of the twentieth century, motorists caught in speeding violations were commonly asked; "who do you think you are, Barney Oldfield?" (3) Oldfield began his career as a bicycle racer. Perhaps because of the courage it took to compete as a cyclist, or perhaps because of his competitive fire, in 1902 he made a smooth transition into automobile racing, winning his first race driving a Ford 999, and beating the well-known racing champion, Alex Winton. (4) In 1903 he became the first man to drive an automobile a mile a minute on a closed-circuit track. (5) Over the next few years his career went through numerous highs and lows, from beating William K. Vanderbilt at Daytona during speed week of 1904, to surviving several horrific crashes. (6) News of both his great accomplishments and travails were frequently before the public. Since automobile racing was still in its infancy when he started, he earned much of his money from the sport of racing in match races on barnstorming tours of the country. By 1910, thousands and perhaps even millions of Americans had seen the great Oldfield race. No single man was better known for his racing exploits.
Automobiles and motorists were still carving out their niche in the American social fabric. At the turn of the century roads were not paved, and they rarely connected one community to the next. The horse was the primary vehicle for personal transportation, and horse owners resented the intrusion of the automobile. The automobile was noisy, smoky, and left ruts in the roads making it more dangerous for horses. By 1910, newspapers' treatment of the automobile was contradictory, but there was at least some evidence of its growing acceptance. In one section of a newspaper there may have been articles describing the havoc and carnage caused by automobiles, and in another section of the same newspaper appeared paid advertising by automobile manufacturers and tire manufacturers, and articles describing the latest heroic accomplishments of some of the top automobile racers of the day.
By 1908, the AAA Contest Board had secured its position as the only nationally recognized sanctioning body of motor sports. (7) Although the AAA Contest Board was the only nationally recognized sanctioning body, its control over the sport was by no means complete. Its role was to license competitors and sanction events, and thereby insure credibility and honesty to the ticket buying public. Maintaining this control was a constant struggle for the Contest Board. Contestants frequently signed contracts to appear in more than one event on a single day. The more popular contestants could play one race promoter against the other in order to increase his financial guarantee. In order to give automobile racing credibility with the public, the Contest Board made every effort to disqualify this type of contestant. In spite of this, it appeared that some drivers, such as Oldfield, had the popularity and name recognition to attract big crowds even when competing against unknown and unlicensed drivers in unsanctioned events. For example, in 1909 Oldfield himself was banned and later reinstated on an appeal for failing to honor a contract to a race promoter. (8)
Besides characterizations of the era as progressive, it was also a period marked by great inconsistencies. It was a tumultuous era in American history, with muckraking journalists, labor riots, as well as suffrage and prohibition protests. Racism was prevalent nation-wide. Evidence of racism was so prevalent nationally, that it can be observed on the sports pages of American newspapers of the time. Perhaps the most popular sport in America in the early twentieth century was boxing. Although boxing had been integrated for generations, no African American had ever been given the opportunity to fight for the heavyweight championship prior to Johnson's victory over Tommy Burns in 1908.
The fact that the heavyweight division had a black champion at that time was socially significant. Segregation was the rule of the day in most sports and more than half of the country at that time. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries heavyweight champions in America were the leading sporting personalities, and sometimes more widely recognized than even the nation's political leaders. An African American holding that prestigious position was a direct challenge to most of the racial stereotypes of the day, namely that African Americans lacked the self-discipline, courage and intelligence to excel to this level in any activity. A large portion of the national media and a large portion of the white-dominated sporting world initiated an aggressive search for the white man who could de-thrown the black champion. This started an era that historian Randy Roberts called The Era of White Hopes. (9)
After defeating nearly every viable white challenger, a former champion, Jim Jeffries, was coaxed out of retirement to face the black champion. The racist overtones in the popular press were overwhelming. The 1910 title fight between Johnson and Jeffries was more than an ordinary championship fight; it was portrayed in the media as symbolically a fight for racial supremacy. After Johnson won, the tumultuous social conditions of the time ultimately led to incidents of racial violence across America. (10)
As previously noted, Johnson attempted to capitalize on his celebrity as other champions before him, and live a life of wealth and fame by making money through public appearances, Vaudeville appearances, early celebrity endorsements, and the promotion of fight films. As a black man, Johnson discovered very quickly that many of those doors were closed to him. One of Johnson's hobbies was driving fast cars. He was widely known for not only his physical prowess in the ring, but also for his recklessness outside the ring. Johnson's victory over Jeffries and his desire to net similar riches from extracurricular activities set him on a collision course to race Barney Oldfield. Oldfield was the biggest star of an emerging sport struggling to gain a foothold of legitimacy. To Oldfield, defeating Johnson meant not only a lucrative payday, and the opportunity to avenge the loss of his personal friend Jim Jeffries, but it would also ensure the preservation of the new sport as a white domain.
The sporting world demanded a Jeffries-Johnson title fight, hopeful of re-installing a white champion. Randy Roberts portrayed the match-up as symbolic of the larger societal battle for racial supremacy. (11) The battle was first fought in the popular press. As characterized in the white-dominated media, the black race was supposedly lacking in courage and stamina. It was the view of many white journalists that these weaknesses stemmed from a moral weakness inherent in the black race. (12) In articles, Johnson was demeaned by his portrayal with stereotypical slave-like speech, and in cartoon characterizations with exaggerated apelike features. (13)
Just as Johnson was at the pinnacle of his career within the realm of boxing, Oldfield had achieved similar acclaim in the world of speed. He was at the pinnacle of his sport that year. On March 14th of the same year during speed week at Daytona, Oldfield set the world's land speed record at 131.72 m.p.h. (14) Despite Oldfield's personal success and the growing popularity of automobile racing, the dominant story of 1910 was the heavyweight championship fight between Jeffries and Johnson, scheduled for July 4th. After Johnson won the fight in dominating fashion, racial tension in the country increased. Immediately after the fight, race riots occurred. Numerous African Americans were injured or killed by European Americans that could not accept the outcome of the fight, or the celebrations of African Americans. (15) Since Johnson had beaten every credible white contender, there was little discussion of another white hope in the newspapers following the fight. For prolonged periods of time the newspapers ignored Johnson's activities completely. The silence was in itself a reflection of racism, because it was not typical of the way journalists normally treated the heavyweight champion of the world. Johnson took a break from fighting and sought out other venues to earn money and keep his name before the public. The race with Oldfield was a logical next step, since he had such a passion for fast cars. In his autobiography, he seemingly brags about his propensity for fast driving, as well as his speeding tickets. (16) Johnson decided to give automobile racing a try, and began seeking out some of the big names in the sport for a match race. Reportedly after more than one challenge, and seeing the money involved, Oldfield accepted. Oldfield claimed that he and his manager never believed Johnson was serious. (17)
As Indianapolis was the hotbed for motor sports in the late twentieth century, New York was the pulse of automobile racing in 1910. Not only did New York have the famous Sheepshead Bay Track but also the racing authority at the time, the AAA Contest Board, was headquartered in New York. One of the premier racing events, the Vanderbilt Cup Race was held on Long Island at the time. News of the negotiations between the two champions was dwarfed by coverage of the Vanderbilt Cup race. That year, the popular Vanderbilt race turned out to be one of the bloodiest carnages in the history of motor sports, and that added to the newspaper coverage. (18) In spite of the attention devoted to a race with numerous accidents, deaths, and injuries of both contestants and spectators, and the resultant controversies, newspapers did not refrain from covering automobile racing. The announcement of the match race between Johnson and Oldfield appeared in very small articles. The Johnson-Oldfield race was to be held at Sheepshead Bay Track in New York City, on October 20th. (19)
A day after Oldfield arrived in New York, the AAA Contest Board announced that they would not sanction the Johnson-Oldfield race. (20) The article in the paper announced that the Johnson-Oldfield race was to go on as scheduled. On October 11th, the New York Herald and New York Tribune both reported that Johnson's AAA license had been revoked by chairman Butler of the Contest Board. (21) The Times quoted Butler as saying that "competition of this sort would not do the sport any good," and "the governing board of this organization would not stand for such a race." (22) On the same day the Herald also printed a story of Johnson's license, but was more critical of it, stating that the reason given by the board was "rather ambiguous." (23) The Herald interviewed Oldfield's manager, Bill Pickens, who reportedly stated: "Barney Oldfield is bigger than the AAA Contest Board," and added, "they don't dare outlaw him." (24)
Butler's words put him in a position where he had to follow through with his threat, and Pickens' published statement could not have helped matters for Oldfield and Johnson. After the morning edition came out, Butler acted that day to secure the suspension of both Oldfield and Pickens, Oldfield's manager, for violation of rule 58 of the Contest Board rules of the AAA, which was to plan a race with an unlicensed driver. Sam Butler, Chairman of the AAA Contest Board, convened what the New York Times called a "special meeting of the board" immediately after the report appeared in the newspaper. (25) The meeting took place via telephone calls and telegrams. Butler wrote the note, and asked for a vote to suspend all participants should they go through with the race. A reprint of the official notice appeared in the newspapers the next day. The official record of the member's votes arrived several days later by mail. (26) The Contest Board minutes even mentioned the article that appeared in the Herald earlier that day. They stated the official reason was "publicly announcing his intention of competing with 'Jack' Johnson," and added "for statements in the public press, notable the New York Tribune of October 11th, defying the Contest Board and its sanction." (27) Obviously, Pickens' strong words provoked Butler's reaction.
The New York Times reported "Jack Johnson was very indignant when he heard that his registration card as a licensed driver had been taken away." (28) The suspension of his license was not a matter for the entire board, so there was no mention of the license revocation in the AAA Contest Board minutes, and no written record of their correspondence with the champion. Much can be inferred from Johnson's formal written response that appeared in the New York Times. Johnson wrote:
I return herewith the $1 which you returned to me, same being in payment of license fee. I conformed to all condition named on the application blank furnished me by your office, and will not accept cancellation of my license. You are in error when you state that I obtained the license by trickery or misrepresentation. You cannot blame me for your lack of office system. I will go to the courts if necessary to secure my rights and privileges. (29)
Years later, automobile racing historian Russ Catlin reported that a white man using the name "John Luther Johnson" obtained the license from an office girl during Sam Butler's absence. (30) Had Johnson applied in person, the license would likely have been denied due to his race.
Oldfield had sold his interest in the event to a film company and stood to lose $5,000 profit if he broke his contract. (31) In the newspapers he appeared very contrite. The Times reported that Oldfield said he was afraid the public would call him a 'quitter.' (32) The Herald quoted Oldfield as saying that he "had no fight with the Contest Board of the AAA," and added he was under obligation by law to fulfill his contract and would have "to accept such a penalty as the AAA hands [him]." (33) Although appearing very noble, his reaction probably had more to do with the money than the moral value he placed on fulfilling contracts, since he had broken contracts with promoters in the past.
On October 17th, Jack Johnson arrived in New York for practice at the track. The contestants met the next day to decide on the format of the race, which was the best two of three heats of five miles each, to be held October 20th. (34) The next official meeting of the AAA Contest Board was held on October 19th, with the main topic on the agenda Oldfield's status. The Contest Board was operating on the knowledge that Oldfield was still planning to compete in the race they had refused to sanction. Their complaint at that point was that Oldfield was in open defiance of the disqualification of the Contest Board, and appeared at an unsanctioned event on October 14th, failing to heed the warnings of officials there at the time. The AAA Contest board voted unanimously to "indefinitely disqualify and suspend" Oldfield from participation in any sanctioned events. Demonstrating the perceived importance of the indiscretion, L. R. Spear, President of the AAA Contest Board was present at the meeting, and spoke out against Oldfield's actions. (35) It was fairly common for the AAA President to attend meetings of the Contest Board, but very uncommon for him to take an active role at one of those meetings.
The Contest Board felt the need to exert their authority since they had been damaged in the media. It is, however, unclear what the Contest Board meant by "suspended indefinitely." Clearly, the expression did not mean permanently, although that was a common interpretation. Oldfield was allowed an appeal, and the Contest Board voted on more than one occasion to define and then change the duration of Oldfield's suspension.
The controversy caused the postponement of the race until October 26th, and it was uneventful with Oldfield winning both heats easily. (36) Seemingly Oldfield was thumbing his nose at the Contest Board. Johnson was completely out-classed in driving skill by a thorough racing professional. Johnson probably chose to forget about the race, and said very little about the event in his autobiography, except that "the manner in which he out-drove and out-stripped me convinced me that I was not meant for that sport." (37)
Besides avenging the loss of his close friend, Jim Jeffries, Oldfield reported after the race that he had accepted the challenge to insure the dominance of the white race. He said that he had put the upstart black challenger in his place before Johnson could gain the confidence needed to become a racing champion. (38) After the race, he was quoted as saying:
I did not enter into the race against Johnson for gold or glory, but to eliminate from my profession an invader who might cause me trouble in a year or so if I ignored him now. If Jeffries had fought Johnson five years ago when the white man was in his prime he would not had had to return to the ring and suffer the Reno defeat. (39)
It is unclear whether this was truly reflective of his thinking, or was said to appease the critics of the race. In either case, racism was always in the background.
Johnson dropped almost entirely out of the news after the race with Oldfield until December 30th, when it was announced that he had agreed to again defend his title, this time in a fight to be held in France. (40) Oldfield was in the news immediately after the race challenging the supremacy of the AAA Contest Board. In November, Oldfield entered two of his cars in the AAA sanctioned race in Atlanta. His cars were immediately disqualified without a hearing. Oldfield's response was to sue the AAA for the right to exercise his freedom to earn a living by racing automobiles. The judge in Atlanta ruled that he had no jurisdiction in the matter. (41)
Since an appeal to a higher court would cause Oldfield to miss the race anyway, Oldfield decided to fight the AAA in a different way. By the end of November, Oldfield was home in California, organizing and racing in unsanctioned races at Ascot Park. (42) This brand of racing between unlicensed drivers in unsanctioned cars, or on unsanctioned tracks became known as outlaws. Oldfield's intent was to establish a series to rival the AAA. The AAA Contest Board promptly moved to punish this new challenge. In their December meeting, the Contest Board voted to ban Oldfield from racing in sanctioned events for exactly one year, starting January 1st, 1911. (43) The new ruling of the Contest Board did nothing, except to establish a definate disqualification period. Oldfield and his manager, Bill Pickens, believed at the time that Oldfield's name was so big, people would pay to see him drive even in unsanctioned events. In February, Oldfield participated in an unsanctioned race in San Antonio, Texas. The AAA Contest Board held to their position of punishment, and at their March meeting, added another three months onto Oldfield's suspension. (44)
Perhaps Oldfield had a name that was bigger than the AAA at the time, but other drivers became reluctant to race him in unsanctioned events facing the possibility of suspension. Track owners and promoters faced the same consequences, making it more difficult for Oldfield to find places to race. Oldfield was known to have been bitter about being closed out of the Daytona speed week activities, and the car that Oldfield used to set the land speed record in 1910 was the same car used to break the record again in 1911, of course with a different driver at the wheel. (45) Oldfield's biographer, William Nolan described his barnstorming activities as lucrative, but Oldfield was forced to cut back his racing while under suspension. He opened a tavern in California while serving out his suspension. (46) In January 1912, a more contrite Barney Oldfield formally applied for reinstatement. (47) Although it was at first denied, two months later, the AAA Contest Board changed their position after hearing a second appeal. (48) They won the battle, and affirmed their position as the controlling body of motor sports. The AAA had to appear victorious to demonstrate that the sport had arrived to a level of legitimacy and that it was bigger than any of its stars. Having done this, new Contest Board President William Schimpf recognized that as long as Barney Oldfield was under control, the sport would be better off with its brightest star.
The 1910 match race between Barney Oldfield and Jack Johnson was a historic automobile race of profound significance, because it reflects many social forces operating within American society at the time. It is the story of Barney Oldfield's struggle with the AAA Contest Board, which can be viewed as an individual's struggle to exert his will against larger and impersonal forces emerging in a new social order. It is the story of Jack Johnson's struggle to exercise the personal liberty that he perceived to be part of his birth right as an American and denied simply because of the color of his skin. It also is the story of the rise of an organizational mentality, in this case the AAA Contest Board, which sacrificed the rights of individuals for the greater good of the organization. The AAA Contest Board, under the guise of protecting the interests of the sport, distanced itself from the responsibility of making a racist decision, which further institutionalized racism in this emerging sport. Few African Americans since have found opportunities to compete in motor sports. In the end, the AAA Contest Board was the winner, securing control over its renegade racer at the expense of Jack Johnson.
(1) Robert Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967).
(2) Russ Catlin, "54 Bittersweet Years of the AAA Contest Board; American Motorsport Goes Big Time," Automobile Quarterly 20 no. 4 (1982): 392-417.
(3) William F. Nolan, Barney Oldfield: The Life and Times of America's Legendary Speed King (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1961), 15-39.
(4) Ibid., 53.
(5) Ibid., 229.
(6) Beverly Rae Kimes, "The Dawn of Speed," American Heritage 38 no. 7 (1987): 92-101; New York Times 25 September 1910.
(7) Catlin, 394-397.
(8) Although this appears in William Nolan's biography, there is no record of this in the AAA Contest Board Minutes. It should be noted that the records that predate 1910 are sketchy and incomplete. See Nolan, 95-98.
(9) Randy Roberts, Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes (New York: The Free Press, 1983).
(10) Ibid. pp. 108-111.
(11) Ibid., 85-109.
(12) Ibid., 89-95.
(13) William H. Wiggins, Jr. "Boxing's Sambo Twins: Racial Stereotypes in Jack Johnson and Joe Louis Newspaper Cartoons, 1908 to 1938." Journal of Sport History 15 (Winter 1988): 242-253.
(14) Kimes, 92-101.
(15) Roberts, 108-111.
(16) Jack Johnson, In the Ring and Out: The Classic Autobiography by the First Black Champion (London: Proneus Limited, 1977), 119-120.
(17) New York Times, 5 October 1910.
(18) New York Herald 2 October 1910.
(19) New York Times 5 October 1910.
(20) New York Times 11 October 1910.
(21) New York Times 11 October 1910; New York Herald 11 October 1910.
(22) New York Times 11 October 1910.
(23) New York Herald 11 October 1910.
(25) New York Times 12 October 1910.
(26) In the minutes of the AAA Contest Board there appears an official statement that was released to the press that noted that Mr. Butler presented the matter to the board members via telephone and telegraph. It was reported that the motion passed, and a record of the members' official absentee votes follows. New York (New York), Minutes of the AAA Contest Board, Meeting of 11 October 1910, Archives of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum, Indianapolis, IN.
(27) New York (New York), Minutes of the AAA Contest Board, Meeting of 11 October 1910, archives of the IMSHFM.
(28) New York Times 12 October 1910.
(30) Jack Johnson's middle name was Arthur. The error appeared in the newspaper as well as in Catlin's article. It is unknown if the mistake was copied from the original records. See Russ Catlin, "Sheepshead Bay Speedway: The Colossus of Brooklyn," 16 no. 1 (1978): 92-109.
(31) New York Times 12 October 1910.
(33) New York Herald 12 October 1910.
(34) New York Times 18 October 1910.
(35) Oldfield appeared in a race on October 14, 1910 in Readville, MS, failing to head the sanctions imposed upon him just three days earlier. New York (New York), Minutes of the AAA Contest Board Meeting of 19 October 1910, archives of the IMSHFM.
(36) New York Herald 26 October 1910; New York Times 26 October 1910.
(37) Johnson, 120.
(38) Barney Oldfield, Barney Oldfield's Book for the Motorist (Boston: Small, Maynard & Company Publishers, 1919): Introduction by Homer C. George, 34-37.
(39) New York Times 26 October 1910.
(40) New York Herald 30 December 1910.
(41) New York Herald 3 November 1910.
(42) New York Herald 28 November 1910.
(43) New York (New York): Minutes of the AAA Contest Board, Meeting of 20 December 1910, archives of the IMSHFM.
(44) New York (New York): Minutes of the AAA Contest Board, Meeting of 8 March 1910, archives of the IMSHFM.
(45) Nolan, 118.
(46) Ibid., 105-119.
(47) New York (New York): Minutes of the AAA Contest Board, Meeting of 11 January 1912, archives of the IMSHFM.
(48) New York (New York): Minutes of the AAA Contest Board, Meeting of 28 March 1912, archives of the IMSHFM.
* Rick Knott is an assistant professor of physical education at St. Bonaventure University. His research interests include sports and race, and sports history during the Progressive Era.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||Afro-Americans in New York Life and History|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2005|
|Previous Article:||Philip Rose: a Broadway journey against racism.|
|Next Article:||Art as propaganda: didacticism and lived experience.|