Was a Black Man on the Titanic?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: The making of a legend named Shine, after the demise of a real person.

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Assuming blacks had had no history with the Titanic, or in its sinking, African Americans did what they do best: they improvised one. After all, the sinking of the Titanic was the most sensationalized news story in a year that had also seen the Balkan states attack the Turkish empire, the Manchu dynasty in China fall and the election of Woodrow Wilson as United States president. “It was not only the multitude of victims that made the catastrophe so overwhelmingly sad,” the Washington Post said in its year-in-review on December 29, 1912, “but the character and importance of many of those who sank.”

Character and importance? Statements like this last one practically dared African Americans to insert themselves into the Titanic narrative. So, putting a black face on the absurd and unexpected consequences of Jim Crow laws, they claimed their own Jack Johnson. The most famous prize-fighter of the day, a black man who had clobbered “The Great White Hope” and been vilified for his three white wives, was supposed to have been on Titanic—and would have been, had the captain not spotted him at the door and barred him because he was black.

It didn’t matter that Johnson was actually in the U.S. when the Titanic set sail from Southampton, England, as Robert Weisbord chronicles in “Black American Perceptions of the Titanic Disaster” in the Winter 1994 edition of Journal of Popular Culture. Johnson fit the narrative black folks needed: He could have afforded the ticket, he was as famous as any other man on board, and he was black. 

“Jack Johnson doesn’t have to fight to keep his name in the newspapers,” the Chicago Defender editorialized two bullets down from its Titanic news flash on April 20, 1912. “The reporters seem to be so eager for news that they chronicle every move he makes, private or otherwise. It must be great to be great.” Though still separate news stories that day, it didn’t take long for Jack Johnson and the Titanic to become one.

In fact, that very year Johnson found his way into a folk song made famous by the great bluesman Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as “Lead Belly.” He called it “Titanic,” and in his “Last Sessions,” recorded in New York City in 1948, he explained how he and Blind Lemon Jefferson used to sing it differently depending on the color of the audience. But to Lead Belly, it was—at least he wanted us to believe it was—“the true story,” and he located it in time by adding, “It was the first song I learned to play on a 12-string guitar, 1912.” Here are the “controversial” lyrics (as sung, minus the repeats):

“Jack Johnson wanted to get on board,
Captain he says, ‘I ain't haulin' no coal!’
Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well! …

“(Jack Johnson so glad he didn’t get on there.)
When he heard about that mighty shock,
Mighta seen the man turn the Eagle Rock.
Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well!”

The key to Lead Belly’s legend was that it reinforced what many African Americans already felt: that even Jack Johnson—a fighter who, in 1912, represented the race like no other—had (or would have) been snubbed as just another piece of “coal,” so that he (and they) were justified in laughing last when the Titanic went down.

Shine and the Titanic

Perhaps even more popular was the figure of Shine, a legendary trickster troped on in signifying rituals such as the and toasts, running the gamut from the clean to the profane in black barbershops and clubs across America. “Shine,” as a name, may have started out as one of the many names white racists used to insult dark-complexioned black people, but in the legend that African Americans invented, he was a bad-ass hero. Shine wasn’t bounced like Jack Johnson from the Titanic’s passenger list like a piece of “coal,” but hired to shovel it way down in the ship’s boiler-room.