To Joe Jeanette
February 08, 2007
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.….……
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Wow what a heart warming story...thanks for sharing it.
When I first came to this country, I read all the Black literature I could; I could relate to those voices and they helped me understand some of the dynamics of this country.
The problem was for a while, I had developed serious issues with white people, simply because they were white (and mostly because of random racist comments thrown my way that were augmented by all the literature i read.)
I think reading Malcolm X helped opened some of those doors for me; and then perhaps later, coming in contact with so many amazing people of all races and realizing that jerks exist in all colors and beautiful people too.
I want to say more, but I will leave it at that. Thanks Tom and peace to you and your loved ones.
Posted by: Maliha | February 10, 2007 at 05:46 PM
I am a descendant of Joe Jeanette, my mother is Frances Jeanette, if anyone has information please contact this email, we are looking for our family.
Posted by: ayesha champion | March 02, 2007 at 09:27 AM
I am a descendant of Joe Jennette as well . My father is Franklin Jennette , the brother of Frances Jennette . If any other members of Joe's family is by chance reading this please contact either Ayesha or myself . We would love to get to know you.
To Tom : I enjoyed your story. It filled in some blanks as far as his family life and what type of man he was. Thank You so much.
Posted by: Sabrina Jennette | October 13, 2007 at 06:29 AM
Anyone with stories or info on Jennettes personal or preofessional life please E-mail.
Posted by: Joe Botti | January 23, 2008 at 11:43 AM
Anyone with info on Joe's life please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted by: Joe Botti | February 20, 2008 at 10:26 AM
Wonderful story, and heart-warming comments from people related to Jennette. I'll look again at the bonus material on the "Cinderella Man" DVD.
Also a pleasure to me personally to see the comment from Maliha!
Posted by: Moristotle | February 28, 2008 at 12:05 PM
Joe Jennette Jr. was my uncle and confirmation sponsor. He married my father's sister Angie Rufino, I often visited the house on 26th and Summit Ave. because my father lived with Uncle Joey & Aunt Angie from the time he was 13 until he was released from the army after WW11. My father would help washing the limos in the garage. I was only 10 when Mr. Jennette died. I have vague memories of him. I can remember the picture in the Jersey Journal and Hudson Dispatch of my Uncle Joey and his sister Agnes standing in front of the open casket at Lieber's Funeral Home. That was the first time I knew about Mr. Jennette's career as a boxer.
Uncle Joey was a wonderful musician, and he influenced my career to become a music teacher.There was a beautiful grand piano in their living room that I would sit under as a child. He and Aunt Angie would frequently come to my concerts and plays that I directed. They also attended performances of the North Bergen Opera Co. latter Family Opera Co. in Schuentzen Park.
Posted by: Dr. Vincent J. Rufino | April 19, 2009 at 05:34 PM
Here is an email I received from Sabrina Jennette, a great niece:
Here is one of the pictures from the ceremony held in Union City
yesterday in honor of Joe Jennette . A historical marker was placed on
27th st. and Summit Ave. at his old residence to memorialize him and
his lifes work . There are many more photos you will be able to see
very soon at www.joejennette.com Please take the time to visit his
Here are the photos:
When I wrote this post, I had no idea I would connect up with so many people who followed or were related to Joe. It's been a rewarding experience.
Posted by: tom sheepandgoats | April 29, 2009 at 07:10 PM
hey tom...it's an honor to talk to you again...one day i like for all of us to come together and celebrate with the family of Joe Jennette...we are all connected through the spirit of this great man...i've been writing a book called Square Joe: Indomitable Will...it will be a masterpiece when it's done...my website is not even halfway finished...it's tough out there...i need the family and friends to give me the finishing touches on the real life of Joe Jennette...anyway your family is awesome and God Bless everyone who believes in this great story...i'll keep in touch and KEEP PUNCHIN' at the keyworld all 49 ROUNDS of them...your friend Gregory Speciale www.joejennette.com
Posted by: Gregory Speciale | April 29, 2009 at 10:50 PM
This is your sister, Linda. I have been enjoying the joe jennette website and I am so delighted that your wonderful stories on Joe are on here. Since, Uncle Joe died the year I was born I never met him but it has been wonderful looking at all the pictures and reading about him. I do remember seeing pictures of him though in Gram Hartlieb's big family album. Were you able to go to the ceremony in Union City? I would have loved to have gone. Sometime, I would like to see the gym and the historical marker. Your second article helped explain the confusion on Joe's last name. I have been wondering why it was always spelled Jeannette in the paper but his grave stone is spelled Jennette. By the way, someone really needs to write a book on Joe. It would be great to see one for kids....hmmm, any interest? Take care, Love, Linda
Posted by: Linda Shepler | April 29, 2009 at 11:56 PM
It's a super site you've created for Joe. You did him proud. We are but one side of his family, who don't know too much about boxing. It took a real fan such as yourself to tie the several ends together as you have. Looking forward to the book.
Hello and thanks for the kind words. Alas, it looks like Greg has beat us all insofar as writing a book. Love to all.
Posted by: tom sheepandgoats | April 30, 2009 at 09:59 AM
Can you say where Joe is buried. I'm planning a trip to the USA on pilgrimage to some of the great boxers of the era and would love to pay my respects.
Posted by: Glenn Wilson | October 27, 2009 at 01:20 PM
My name is Joe Botti I run the boxing gym in Union City and have for 20 years. I organized the Historical marker ceremony and I am half way through a book on Jennettes life. Anyone with any stories photos or info please contact me. Especially personal stories.
Posted by: Joe Botti | November 07, 2009 at 08:31 AM
I can be reached at email@example.com
Posted by: Joe Botti | November 07, 2009 at 08:33 AM
My grandmother Marion Moore Day was Joe's leading lady in his 1921 film "Square Joe". Her ,other, and I think her brother were also cast. Any leads on the film -- copies/archives? Please let me know.
Posted by: Noel Day | July 24, 2010 at 02:48 AM
Noel: Thanks so much for the note. But rather than me do you a favor, you're done me one. I've never heard of the film. 1921 would have been 35 years before I ever saw Joe. Whatever early acting he might have done, he never spoke of it in later life, or at least, family members never mentioned it to me. I don't know if the film can be tracked down or not.
And just for the record, it's a matter of some regret to me that I didn't make it down to the Union City ceremony mentioned above. Nor was there any good reason for it; it's just that life was throwing too many other things my way at the time. But sifting through these comments and some others that have been emailed me, I wish I had been there.
Posted by: tom sheepandgoats | July 24, 2010 at 07:44 AM
hey noel...please contact firstname.lastname@example.org i'm the creator of joejennette.com my book that i'm writing is called (Square Joe) i've been searching for the Gone With The Wind of Motion Pictures...that's right...Square Joe was a masterpiece...my great-grandfather was trained by Joe Jennette and my uncles trained fighters alongside Joe...well anyway, this book has both sides of Jennette's Family white and black...your grandmother THE BEAUTIFUL MARION MOORE was so talented...the other lead female was the GREAT FREDI WASHINGTON another talented and beautiful African American...hey Tom, your the best...send Noel my phone number...I have from an film archive some info they would love...the only info I can find on Marion Moore...is a 1993 obit...love to have some photos of the moore family...it would go great with my joe jennette website...to all the relatives of joe jennette...this coming september union city new jersey will open up a historical musuem...joe jennette history will be on display :)
Posted by: Gregory Speciale | July 29, 2010 at 12:12 PM
In April the city of Union City will open a Historical and Cultural Center in Union City Joe Jeannette photos and memorabilia will be on display. Anyone wanting to get involved with this or the upcoming book can contacted me at email@example.com
Posted by: Joe Botti | February 07, 2011 at 12:39 AM
Great story , I m a boxing historian and longtime collector of memorabilia.Would love to hear from relitives of Joe Jeanette.Looking for memorabilia,I have rare pics of him to trade,Richard firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted by: Richard | April 02, 2011 at 05:50 PM