AFRICAN AMERICANS IN PROGRESSIVE-ERA CT: THE BATTLE OVER THE JACK JOHNSON FIGHT FILM

Frank Jonientz, Library Technical Assistant, Connecticut Digital Newspaper Project
Connecticut State Library

TEACHER'S SNAPSHOT

Historical Background

In July 1910, Jack Johnson, an African American prizefighter, beat Jim Jeffries, a white prizefighter, for the World Heavyweight Championship. A commercial film of the bout was made and distributed. Before the film could be widely shown, state and local governments passed laws banning it.

D1: Potential Compelling Question

What does the battle over the Johnson-Jeffries fight film tell us about the social position of African Americans in Progressive-Era Connecticut?

D1: POTENTIAL SUPPORTING QUESTIONS

  • Why was the film censored?
  • Who was pushing for censorship?
  • What were some of the responses by government officials to the controversy?
  • How did the companies that controlled the film respond to the banning of the film?
  • How did the African American community respond to the censorship of the film?

D2: TOOL KIT

Things you will need to teach this lesson:








D3: INQUIRY ACTIVITY

If you choose, start by showing the 3:37 clip of the Johnson-Jeffries fight from 1910.

You may choose to use the full set of resources provided or focus on two or three articles. There is also a photograph of Jack Johnson available to share with the class.

Break the students into groups and have each group work with one or even a set of resources. Have students gather evidence and inferences about the controversy over the Johnson-Jeffries fight film. You may wish to use some of the supporting questions to guide the inquiry:

  • Why was the film censored?
  • Who was pushing for censorship?
  • What were some of the responses by government officials to the controversy?
  • How did the companies that controlled the film respond to the banning of the film?
  • How did the African American community respond to the censorship of the film?

Bring the class together to share their findings and remaining questions. Discuss how or where students could find answers or learn more.

D4: COMMUNICATING CONCLUSIONS

  • Students, acting as if they were living in Connecticut in 1910, will write a letter to the editor of the Bridgeport Evening Farmer or the Norwich Bulletin in response to any of the articles provided, arguing for or against the showing of the film in their town or in the state.
  • Students will compare the Johnson fight film controversy to a contemporary controversy over popular culture or censorship and prepare a short oral or written presentation on the comparison.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Place to GO
Things To DO

Examine the controversy over the naming of Serena Williams as Sportsperson of the Year in 2015, as examined in this article: The Daily Beast- “Serena Williams: Diary of a Strong, Black Woman in White America” by Stereo Williams.

Websites to VISIT

Library of Congress: Topics in “Chronicling America” – Jack Johnson vs. James J. Jeffries

PBS.org: “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” A Film Directed by Ken Burns.

YouTube: “Jack Johnson vs. James J. Jeffries (1910)”

Articles to READ

Orbach, Barak Y. “The Johnson-Jeffries Fight and the Censorship of Black Supremacy,” Arizona Legal Studies Discussion Paper No. 10-09, April 1910.