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Jack Johnson and Masonic Controversy in Dundee

On the morning of Friday 13 October 1911, the celebrated American boxer John Arthur Johnson, known as Jack, was initiated as an Entered Apprentice into the Forfar & Kincardine Freemasons Lodge (Lodge No 225) at 13 Meadow Street, Dundee. Before the initiation ceremony was completed, a telegram from the Provincial Grand Lodge of Forfarshire was passed to the Right Worshipful Master Robert T Blues saying: “Stop Johnson’s Initiation; am writing.” No further information was given. Master Blues chose to ignore the request, since by that time Johnson had already been exposed to the secrets and traditions of the Masons.  

 

So who was Jack Johnson? What was he doing becoming a freemason in Dundee? And why were others so anxious to prevent this happening?


Jack Johnson photographed in 1915 (Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons)

Jack Johnson was born on 31 March 1878, in Galveston, Texas, the third of nine children born to parents who were formerly enslaved. He began working as a labourer at shipyard docks where boxing matches were often organised for money. This is where he discovered his talent for fighting and he would go on to become World Heavyweight Champion from 1908 to 1915.  

 

Unfortunately, in a heavily segregated society, Johnson’s success was not celebrated by the wider American community. The winners of the World Heavyweight Championship had previously been exclusively white and Johnson’s repeated victories over white boxers provoked racist hostility. His success set in motion a worldwide search for a “Great White Hope” (a term coined by the writer Jack London for this purpose) to defeat Johnson and restore the title to where many white Americans felt it belonged. This resentment even led to nationwide race riots after Johnson defeated former champion James Jeffries in Reno, Nevada in 1910.  

 

Johnson had a fascination with freemasonry. “My father-in-law was a Mason, and my wife desires me to be one,” he told the Dundee Courier. “It has for long been my great desire to be Mason”.

 

In June 1911, Johnson and his (white) wife Etta sailed from New York to England, raising eyebrows among polite society by travelling first class, a move described by the Evening Telegraph as winning “the biggest fight against race prejudice”. After various appearances in England, he was in Newcastle in October when the opportunity came to undertake the masonic ceremony in Dundee. His visit was a brief one but attracted considerable attention from public and press alike. The Courier reported on his appearance in racialised terms:

 

“…the desire to have a look at Johnson was very keen. Many had their ambition gratified, but for the benefit of his admirers who were denied the pleasure of casting their eyes upon the man who pulverised Jim Jeffries we shall describe him. It is unnecessary to say that he is tall – very tall, in fact. As black men go, Jack Johnson is not good-looking. … His features are a trifle harsh. In repose, they suggest a temperament not by any means brutal, but certainly one with which a friendly acquaintance is more to be desired than open warfare. On top Jack is sparsely woolly. He has big, rolling eyes, but it is when he gives his famous smile that you see Jack Johnson, the ‘darling of the gods’. … When he opens his lips Johnson reveals a dazzling display of ivory intermixed with gold. America has struck a fashion in gold teeth, and Johnson is in the fashion and no mistake. The famous fighter wore a heavy greyish overcoat, and on his head a soft felt hat was set in jaunty style.”

 

Mr & Mrs Johnson arrived by the early train at 5.30am then made their way to the Royal Hotel for breakfast. Mrs Johnson remained there while Jack, accompanied by Masonic Brother Sydney McLaglan, took a taxicab to Meadow Street. Word of his presence quickly spread around the city and crowds gathered outside the Hall while the ceremony was taking place.


The masonic lodge in Meadow Street, 1962 (later demolished). The building to the left was a Hebrew Synagogue (courtesy of Dundee City Archives).

 Following the initiation, Johnson was met with much celebration from the brethren and the people of Dundee. The Courier reported a “great deal of handshaking,” and he was “lifted and carried ... shoulder high through the hall … to the taxicab which was waiting outside.”  A large crowd was waiting to give him “a hearty reception” and another cheered as he collected Mrs Johnson from the Royal Hotel. Both crowds descended on the station where the “big man stood up to the jostling merrily. His good nature was freely commented upon.”  

 

Speaking in the Hall following the ceremony, Johnson claimed: “This the most glorious time of my life… It has for long been my great desire to be Mason and I have now accomplished the first stage of the journey. I will always have the greatest love for Dundee and Dundee Masons.” 

 

The next day, an investigation began by the Provincial Grand Lodge into the proceedings leading up to Johnson’s initiation. This investigation was then passed up to the Grand Lodge of Scotland in Edinburgh. They believed that the Ceremony was illegal and the initiation “be declared as null and void.” They threatened to suspend the Lodge and the members involved. Solicitors Kilgour, McCrae and Strachan of 11 Murraygate were appointed to defend Right Worshipful Robert T Blues, Past Master John Ross, Past Master George Smith, Past Master Alexander Low and the Lodge.  

 

The Grand Lodge’s case was based on three points, by which they had argued that Lodge No 225 had “departed from and violated the Constitution of the Grand Lodge and byelaws of their own Lodge.”

 

Firstly, the time of the meeting was changed from 12pm to 10am. Usually, meetings were held at noon and advertised in advance in the Courier. The last-minute change had come about because Blues had only been notified early on the morning of 13 October that Johnson was due in Newcastle for an evening engagement and needed to catch the 12.15 train. The Grand Lodge did not see this as a valid reason.  

 

Secondly, not all brethren were notified of the change of time. When Blues decided to change the time to 10am, he telephoned to summon as many “office bearers and brethren as possible.” He also drove around to eight other brethren calling them to the meeting. However, the notice was already posted in the newspaper for the 12pm meeting so not all brethren learned of the change in time. “35 members of the Lodge and 34 visitors” attended. The Lodge at that time had about 350 qualified members and the Hall had ample room to hold a lot more than the 69 that attended.

 

It transpired that another reason for the low attendance was that some chose to boycott the ceremony. At a meeting the evening before, objections were raised by two brethren present on “grounds of his colour”, while others protested “on grounds of his profession.” These brethren told Master Blues they would “blackball” Johnson. After further discussion, the objectors agreed to withdraw their complaints. However, after the meeting ended news spread amongst others not present and Blues subsequently received telephone calls arguing against Johnson’s initiation.  

 

In Blues’ defence, he stated that as part of his duties as Right Worshipful Master he “considered himself justified” in changing the time and calling meetings “as occasion may require”, noting that according to the charter of the Lodge, brethren are “authorised to ... convene as a regular Lodge and admit apprentices as they see convenient.”  He and Past Masters Smith, Ross and Low stated they were unaware of having violated the constitution, and were in no way attempting to “defy the authority of the Grand Lodge or to bring discredit on Scottish Freemasonry.” 

 

Thirdly, the Grand Lodge argued that there had been no formal enquiry into Johnson’s character or “fitness for membership.” Was he a “fit and proper person for initiation”? It was claimed that the Forfar & Kincardine Lodge knew little about him except that he held a “high position in his particular branch of sport.”

 

However, two brethren were able to offer good assessments. Past Master John Ross had met with a Colonel Clark of the British Army nine months earlier. During conversation, Clark had spoken about knowing Jack Johnson and (according to Ross) “seemed to have a high opinion” of him.

 

The main recommendation came from Brother Sydney McLaglan, who had befriended Johnson five years previously and recommended him to Past Master Smith personally. On Wednesday 11 October, McLaglan been visiting Newcastle and met with Johnson and his wife Etta for drinks. Throughout the course of the evening Etta spoke about her father, saying he was “a great mason having no less than 20 degrees”. Johnson later mentioned his ambition to become a mason. McLaglan was due to be promoted to Second Degree two days later at the Lodge in Dundee and upon acknowledging Johnson’s declaration, told him of his Masonic career. After further discussion, McLaglan then sent a telegram to the Lodge with Johnson’s application.  

 

On 18 April 1912 (three days after the sinking of the Titanic), the Grand Committee made their decision. They ruled that Right Worshipful Master Blues be suspended for two years and that Past Masters George Smith, John Ross and Alexander Low be suspended for one year. The Lodge and its members had their meetings suspended for two years. Johnson’s membership fees were returned and his name was removed from the records. 

 

All this prompted considerable attention in the press, with the issue of race never far from the surface. The Courier noted: “It has been argued that if Jack had been a white man, all the pother [sic] would have been saved, but the Grand Lodge of Scotland refuse to admit that the colour question has anything to do with the issue.” It was pointed out that in fact, Johnson had been the second person of colour to be initiated into the Forfar & Kincardine Lodge. Unfortunately we don’t know the identity of the first.

 

Jack Johnson with wives Etta Duryea (left, 1910) and Lucille Cameron (right, 1921) (Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons).

The decision does not seem to have lessened Johnson’s popularity in Dundee, nor prevent him from returning to the city in January 1916 (nine months after losing his Championship title) to star in the stage revue Seconds Out at the King’s Theatre. The show had been a smash hit in London and co-starred his new wife Lucille (also white), who was promoted as “The Famous American Beauty, Originator and Conqueror of the Tango” (despite the dance becoming popular long before she was born!). Johnson was meant to sing during the show but a cold prevented this. Instead he gave a speech and then an exhibition of boxing, facing up against “a number of budding pugilists from among the audience.”

 

Johnson continued to face racial prejudice but none of it stopped him pursuing his ambitions. His boxing career made him wealthy, allowing him to wear tailored clothing and buy expensive cars. He also owned a desegregated restaurant in Chicago called Cafe de Champion and opened another in Harlem called Club Delux. Under new management, this later became the famous Cotton Club. 

 

It is important to acknowledge the unpleasant aspects of his character. His wife Etta, who accompanied him on his first visit to Dundee, was physically abused by him and a combination of this and the hostile reaction to their interracial marriage led her to take her own life in September 1912. His next wife Lucille divorced him citing infidelity.

 

Jack Johnson retired from professional boxing in 1938. His career lasted over 33 years and he won 80 of his 114 professional matches. In June 1946 he died suddenly at the age of 68 when he accidently drove his Lincoln Zephyr into a telegraph pole in Franklinton, North Carolina. At his funeral, his last wife Irene said of him, "I loved him because of his courage. He faced the world unafraid.”

 

 

Written by Johanna Steele and Matthew Jarron 

 

 

SOURCES 

 

Chicago Tribune, 25 May 2018  - “The short, sad story of Café de Campion – Jack Johnson’s mixed race night club on Chicago’s South Side” by Charles J. Johnson.  

 

Contact: The Magazine of the University of Dundee, June 2009 - “News from the Archives ‘The Champ and the Lodge: The Curious Case of Jack Johnson” by Michael Bolik

 

Dundee Courier, 14 October 1911  

 

Evening Telegraph, 7 June 1911, 2 August 1912 & 4 January 1916  

 

Edinburgh Evening News, 20 April 1912 

 

  

Minutes of Meeting of Lodge Forfar and Kincardine, 1912, University of Dundee Archive Services MS 17/12/12 (1-39)  

  

Morning Star, 4 July 2020 - “Jack Johnson: the legendary boxer who fought US racism” (morningstaronline.co.uk) by John Wight.  

 

 

Wikipedia pages on Jack Johnson and the Cotton Club 

 

“Unforgivable Blackness. The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” by Ken Burns - www.kenburns.com/films/unforgivable-blackness  

 

 

 

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