When Jack Johnson Met the Black Russian

New book recalls the historic encounter between the boxing champ and savvy entrepreneur Frederick Bruce Thomas.

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Frederick Bruce Thomas (National Archives, NARA II); Jack Johnson (The Ring Magazine/Getty Images)

(Special to The Root) -- This is an excerpt from Vladimir Alexandrov's recent book The Black Russian, which tells the true story of Frederick Bruce Thomas, the son of former slaves in Mississippi who became a millionaire entrepreneur in czarist Moscow and the "Sultan of Jazz" in Constantinople. (For more on Thomas' incredible story, check out Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro column). One of Thomas' boldest moves was to invite Jack Johnson, the black American heavyweight-boxing champion of the world, to fight in Moscow.

Because Frederick Bruce Thomas lived in distant Moscow and had few dealings with the American consuls there -- who were not always colorblind when they met the occasional black person passing through Russia -- he was blissfully untouched by American racism. However, he was not indifferent to the situation of blacks in the United States.

In the fall of 1912, while preparing to launch a luxurious new variety theater called "Maxim," Thomas decided to offer an engagement to Jack Johnson, who was then "the most famous and the most notorious African-American on Earth," as Ken Burns characterized him in his documentary Unforgivable Blackness. Johnson was the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, a man who occupied the pinnacle of one of the world's most popular spectator sports. Thomas's invitation to him was thus a smart business move. But it was also an extraordinary transcontinental helping hand to a fellow black man in trouble.

During the preceding decade Johnson's resounding defeats of famous white boxers infuriated many white Americans. His behavior out of the ring also incensed them. Jackson was a flamboyant showman who loved fine clothes, fast cars, and, what was especially inflammatory at the time -- fast white women. When the leading white boxers failed to show Johnson his "proper" place, racist Americans turned to their next best weapon during the Jim Crow era -- the "law." On October 18, 1912, Johnson was arrested in Chicago because of his open affair with a white, 19-year old prostitute. He was accused of violating the federal Mann Act, which banned the transportation of females across state lines "for immoral purposes."

Thomas approached Johnson just a few days after the arrest, which had been reported in newspapers across the United States and quickly picked up by the European press. Thomas cabled Richard Klegin, an American promoter of sporting events in Europe, to suggest that they organize "a great tournament" that would start in Moscow on January 1, 1913. It would last a week, and the final "battle" for the heavyweight championship would be between Johnson and Sam McVey, a black American heavyweight then popular in Europe. All the matches would be held in Thomas's centrally located "Aquarium" entertainment garden, which could make arrangements to seat 10,000 spectators. Klegin immediately wired Johnson's manager with Thomas's offer: a certified check for $5,000, three round trip tickets to Russia, a chance to win a $30,000 purse in a match against McVey, and one third of the proceeds from the film of the fight. In today's dollars, this translates into a very nice deal -- an upfront fee of around $150,000, another $750,000 if Johnson won, as was expected, and even more from the film.

The offer caused a sensation in the United States, and newspapers from coast to coast publicized it because of Johnson's notoriety, the large sums involved, and the exotic location. That the offer came from a black American entrepreneur also made the news. Johnson accepted, and announced that he was anxious to go. Thanks to Thomas, tsarist Russia was now beckoning to Johnson as a refuge from American racism (although there was also considerable irony in this because of Russia's own notorious anti-Semitism).

Various complications prevented Johnson from leaving the United States until the summer of 1913, thus forcing Thomas to postpone his grand plans. Johnson also toured several European cities for close to a year before arriving in Moscow in mid-July 1914, or just two weeks before the Great War began.

When Johnson and Thomas finally did meet, they hit it off right away: "Thomas and myself became close friends and we made our headquarters in his park," Johnson recalled in his memoir. The two black men had similar origins and had triumphed in two very different white worlds. They shared another similarity as well: both were fond of tall tales that enhanced their present or embroidered their past and that underscored the extent to which both were showmen. One of the more flagrant inventions by Johnson, or by a member of his entourage, was that Thomas introduced Johnson to Gregory Rasputin -- imperial Russia's extraordinary evil genius -- and at a court ball in Petrograd, no less! As documentary evidence proves, this could never have happened, even though Thomas knew well several people who had first-hand knowledge of Rasputin's scandalous behavior in Moscow.

How different would Johnson's life have been if Thomas's plans for him had succeeded? Boxing was a novelty in Moscow and would doubtless have caught on. Johnson had owned a popular saloon in Chicago, the "Café de Champion," before he was run out of town; he could have opened a place in Moscow with Thomas as a partner. But when war was declared on August 1, 1914, Johnson decided that he could not stay in Russia and left in a hurry with Thomas's help. He did not forget his friend, however, and managed to keep track of him from a distance, through the maelstrom of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and Thomas's hairsbreadth escape to Constantinople in 1919.

Excerpted from The Black Russian, by Vladimir Alexandrov (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013).

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM