After Lennox Lewis’ gold medal victory at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the city of Kitchener where he was raised threw a big party to welcome home the boxing champion.
Theresa Runstedtler, who also grew up in the city, remembers the parade and she secured a postcard with his photo. A few years later, she met the Johnson brothers – Chris, who won a gold medal in the middleweight division at the 1990 Commonwealth Games – and his younger brother Greg, who unsuccessfully challenged for the national light middleweight title. The Jamaican-born brothers were also raised in Kitchener.
Chris Johnson taught Runstedtler basic boxing skills and artistic skipping. Runstedtler’s Filipino heritage also inspired her interest in the sport that’s embraced by the Southeast Asian nation, proud of its fighting tradition. By the time she entered Yale University in 2001 to pursue a doctorate in African-American Studies and History, she knew a fair bit about the sport of boxing.
It was during a history class that Runstedtler encountered the name Jack Johnson for the first time. His story captured her attention and what began as a dissertation was extended into a comprehensive account of Johnson’s reign as the first Black world heavyweight boxing champion and his struggle to find a home.
Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner; Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line, was launched in Canada last week at A Different Booklist, 746 Bathurst St. The book costs $42.
“He was an amazingly colourful person,” said Runstedtler, whose exhaustive research took her to England, Paris and several parts of the United States. “The more I read about him the more I realized that he was the first global Black celebrity who not only provoked a widespread White backlash, but also inspired race pride and anti-colonial consciousness among people of colour. He was known all across the world and I wanted to delve into that story and what it meant for Blacks and colonized people around the world.”
Johnson won the world heavyweight crown on December 26, 1908 in Sydney, Australia. Scheduled for 20 rounds, police stopped the bout in the 14th round to save Canadian Tommy Burns from absorbing more punishment. He held the title for nearly eight years before being knocked out by Jess Willard in the 26th round in Havana, Cuba. Overall, Johnson won 53 – 34 by knockout – of his 64 fights in a 29-year professional career that ended in 1931 with a victory by knockout.
The champion’s affection for White women led to his imprisonment nearly a century ago for violating the White Slave Traffic Act, also known as the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes. Last year, the United States Congress approved a resolution urging a presidential pardon for Johnson, who fled the U.S. after the conviction. He returned years later to serve a 10-month jail term.
U.S. President Barack Obama has so far refused to absolve Johnson.
Runstedtler says she’s not surprised that a presidential pardon has not been granted as yet.
“Obama ran on a racially transcendent platform as a respectable Black figure that appealed to the American electorate and for him to do that would have been like opening a can of worms before his second term,” she said. “Maybe, we will see it in the next four years if he’s re-elected.”
Runstedtler did not take the traditional route to academia. The York University graduate worked as a professional dancer, model and actress before returning to the classroom to pursue graduate studies.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life after I left York,” said the former Toronto Raptors Dance Pak member. “Dancing was the best way I knew how to make money.”
Enrolled in Ryerson University’s radio and television production program, Runstedtler dropped out after realizing she lacked the passion for media production and spent a year working in the public relations department at Rogers Sportsnet. She entered Yale 11 years ago.
“I didn’t know I wanted to be an intellectual,” she said. “I think, however, that kind of informs the fact that I studied boxers rather than theorists and intellectuals.”
An assistant professor of American Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Runstedtler teaches race and popular culture, African-American Studies, United States Imperialism and World History courses.