They buried a great fighter today,” reported the Jersey Journal. “….a warm friendly man….we shall not see his like again in our time.”
Well, not exactly today. It was July 7, 1958. But he was family. So we keep track.
Boxing experts called it the most inhuman fight ever staged. Early last century, in 1909 Paris, Joe Jeanette [Jennette] slugged it out with Sam McVey for 49 rounds. Jennette pounded Sam into the canvas 11 times. McVey returned the favor 27 times. Nonetheless, Jeanette triumphed, for when the 50th round began, McVey refused to budge, crying “this man ain’t human!”
They were four of them: Joe Jeanette, Sam McVey, Sam Langford, and Jack Johnson. They were heavyweights. They were black. They were evenly matched. They mostly fought each other. White boxers rarely fought blacks, and so the World Heavyweight Title was a white title. But one of the four, Jack Johnson, tailed and taunted world champ Tommy Burns around the globe. Finally, in Australia, 1908, Burns agreed to a match. Jack thrashed him soundly and so became the first ever black titleholder. Thereafter, Johnson himself refused all challenges from black fighters.
Was Jack Johnson the greatest of the four? Or was it his tenacity, hounding the white establishment until he got his shot at the title? One can make a case for any of the four. “Many experts believe Joe [Jeanette] would have eclipsed all fighters…. if he had not injured his right arm early in his career,” said boxing writer Jack Powers. Jeanette himself gave the nod to Sam Langford. And it was Sam McVey that went the 49 rounds with Jeanette in Paris. Of course, Jack Johnson captured the title.
“If you want to know which was the toughest of the lot, I’ll tell you,” Joe said in a later interview. “It was Langford. Jack Johnson? No, sir. Not Johnson. Look, I fought them both, not once but many times. Sam would have been champion any time Johnson had given him a fight. There is no question about it. I wouldn’t wonder if Sam could have beaten any man that ever fought….Johnson was a good fighter. No mistake about that. Very clever, and he could hit, too. But Sam would have taken him. I know. But Johnson wouldn’t have any of us after he won the title. Smart man. He was plenty scared of Sam. I don’t blame him. I was too. Boy, how that boy could hit. Nobody could hit like that.”
In 1906, Joe Jeanette married Adelaide Atzinger, a white woman from a modest farm family in upstate New York. She was my great aunt, so I know the history.
They wed in secret, for her family never would have agreed to it. Back then, one did not marry outside one’s race. It was not done. Afterwards, our entire family was ostracized in the community, as if they were all complicit. Adie’s sister Mary was so harassed at school that she quit in the eighth grade and found work in a silk mill. She made $2.50 a week.
Soon such sentiments died down among the local folk. People liked Joe. He carved himself a respected place in the community. But it was not that way with strangers. Years later, his light skinned daughter Agnes would bring home dates to meet her folks. Some would take one look at Joe and disappear. She and her brother Joey later married, but neither couple had children. They wanted to spare kids the same prejudice they had faced.
As for the rest of the family, we read about Joe the fighter, but we remember Joe the man. Uncle Joe retired from boxing in 1918 and went into business. He’d made serious money from fighting, and his wife, by all accounts, could squeeze a nickel till the buffalo yelped. He built a three story brick building, which still stands, on Summit Ave in Union City, New Jersey. It sported a gym on the second floor, a garage/showroom on the first, and three apartments. For a short time, Joe housed all my relatives: Gram and Gramp on the top floor, my great uncle and aunt on the second, he and Adie on the first. Union City later named a street for him….Jeanette St. It runs behind the building.
Later in his career, Joe turned to renting limousines. He always liked fine cars, and the first car Gram ever saw, which scared the wits out of her, came at her piloted by Joe.
By the time my father was born in 1921, Gram and Gramp had bought a nearby farm. As Pop grew up, visiting Joe and Adie was a big deal. Times were hard then financially, and you never knew when Joe would spring loose with a quarter! Pop would wander up to the gym…Joe didn't mind…and slap around the punching bag.
Ron Howard’s 2005 film Cinderella Man includes scenes from Jeanette’s gym. Much was cut from the final movie, but appears in the deleted scenes segment of the DVD, with Ron providing voiceover commentary. Actor Ron Canada played Joe.
Joe was a warm, animated man…a favorite with all the young cousins. “Look at the birdie!” he would cry, looking up. They’d follow his gaze, but it was a trap! As if still in the ring, Joe would move in quick with a tickle, much to their delight. When Gram came down with the Spanish flu in 1918, Joe would visit every day to read her the newspaper. He died at home in 1958, in his 52nd year of marriage. “They buried a great fighter today,” said the Jersey Journal, quoted at the outset. “Jennette was a warm friendly man to his intimates….we shall not see his like again in our time.”
In the innocent naiveté of children, my cousins…their lives overlapped Jeanette’s by about ten years…didn’t realize Joe was a black man. Nor did they think he was a white man. He was just Uncle Joe. But one day they saw black people in the newspaper, the caption said they were black people, and they looked like Uncle Joe. Yes, their mother confirmed, Joe was a black man. But it made no difference to them…why would they care?
Older relatives, though, witnessed Jeannette’s lifelong fight against racism. He fought it with graceful dignity, aided by his amiability, his boxing and business sense, and no doubt the fact that he could pound the stuffing out of anyone had he taken it into his head to do so. Gram, a stolid farm woman, was sensitive to racial injustice throughout her life. And Pop imagines the day when nobody cares about their roots, and when people intermarry so commonly that it can’t be told who’s who. Then, he figures, racism will end.
It’s family history. Because of it, I was raised in a home where racist remarks were never heard. I was slow to imagine that any white family might be different.
Here is an update to the story.