This article was written by Terry Lindvall of Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Virginia. Lindvall is a Professor of Communication and Religious Studies, and also served as the former President at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
One of the earliest racial controversies to hit Norfolk, known as the City of Vice at the turn of the century, was the impending photoplay exhibition of the Jeffries-Johnson boxing match to be shown in July 1910. The prospect of the fight pictures caused some consternation.[i] Other fight films, such as Britt-Nelson, had already been promoted within the city’s province, so this one stood out as heinous due to the victory of the black man over the white hope. The Britt-Nelson reenactment fight films were actually praised as wonderful for offering a study of human character, with a villain and a hero battling each other.
One recognized easily that the problem was not fisticuffs themselves; rather the public exhibition of a race fight loomed more starkly.[i] Mayor James G. Riddick intimated that he might permit exhibition of the boxing match between the powerful black athlete and his white counterpart, but felt he must first them to ascertain whether they might generate “race feelings in Norfolk,” as some critics feared.[ii] While opposed in general to prize fights and their exhibition, Riddick yet declined to fall in line with public officials from numerous other cities, many of whom announced that they would prevent the arrival of such offensive material. Riddick felt it expedient to not officially denounce the film in advance of the evidence. Yet he was fully aware of their potential to “create undue excitement” and to “engender race feeling and incite riot.”[iii] Before barring them, he wanted to see the evidence, presumably in closed session with a few of his cronies.
The national action to bar and protest such films shaped the coverage in Norfolk. When mayors and clergy from Minneapolis, Lynchburg, and Durham joined the Epworth League Board in lending their protest to the moralistic crusade, the Virginian-Pilot reported that in contrast Mexico City allowed the pugilistic spectacles, noting the Mexican Governor’s cavalier retort: “”happily we have no negro problem here.”[iv] Such was not the situation for Mayor Riddick, however. By the next day, he announced that after a long conference with Chief of Police Charles Kizer, they unalterably would not permit moving pictures showing the Jeffries-Johnson fight to be displayed in Norfolk.
Noting that Johnson received a welcoming ovation in Chicago, from over five thousand blacks and a large number of whites, the local paper averred that these fight pictures were to be barred here because of the issue of “public safety.”[v] Wilmer and Vincent, who managed the Colonial, the Dreamland, the Orpheum and the black-oriented Palace Theatre located in the Masonic Temple (on Court Street) emphatically promised not to exhibit the Reno fight pictures, according to the “wishes of their patrons” and the desire of Mayor Reed.[vi] Manager Turner of the Palace equivocated by declaring that “Abiding by the sentiments of the better class of my patrons, I will not put on the pictures. I don’t care to do anything that is against the wishes of the public or the authorities, and consequently there will be no fight pictures in Palace. I had intended to show them if they were wanted, but as the public does not care for them, and the authorities do not desire them, then there will be no such exhibition in Palace.” Manager Butler of the Orpheum said that: “our house is catering to ladies and children, and [neither] the returns or the pictures would be elevating in the least, nor to the liking of our patrons, so we did not handle the returns of the fight nor will we exhibit the films.”[vii]
There will be no pictures of the Jeffries-Johnson fight shown in any theatre managed by Wilmer and Vincent. The Colonial theatre in this city and the Orpheum theatre in Portsmouth are both under the management of Wilmer and Vincent, and patrons of those theaters will be spared the spectacle of a motion picture production of the disgraceful fistic carnival held at Reno on Independence Day.[viii] Yet while the respectable theatres towed the official line of the Mayor, Police Chief and Epworth League, the renegades in neighboring Virginia Beach were not so particular. Manager Walker announced that:
Adding much to the interest of the pictures and rendering them intelligent to everyone will be the presence of a splendid lecturer who will make a thorough explanation of everything thrown on the canvas, and point out the prominent personages. There will probably be three exhibitions of the pictures at night and two in the afternoon. The coming of the picture has created much interest at Virginia Beach, and those going down from Norfolk and Portsmouth and other nearby cities and towns will number thousands. [ix]
Within five years, race would again dominate the headlines with the advent of D W Griffith’s controversial premiere of The Birth of a Nation in Norfolk. That story is yet to come.
[i] See local press coverage starting “Jeffries-Johnson Fight to Occur Near ‘Frisco” VP (December 3, 1909), 2.
[ii] “Mayor May Permit Exhibition of Fight Pictures.” Virginian-Pilot (July 7, 1910), 3.
[iii] Ibid. 3.
[iv] “Sentiment Grows Rapidly Against Fight Pictures” Virginian-Pilot (July 8, 1910), 2.
[v] “Fight Pictures to Be Barred Here” VP (July 9, 1910), 3.
[vi] “Theatre Managers Bar Fight Films From the City” VP (July 10, 1910)
[viii] “Several thousand dollars in rentals were thus turned down by Wilmer and Vincent, but that their attitude was a pretty good barometer for future public opinion was indicated by subsequent events.” “Fight Pictures Barred From These Theatres” (July 12, 1910), 4.
[ix] “Fight Pictures at the Beach Tonight” Lyric Theatre Secures Much Tabooed Films for Beach Crowd” VP (August 26, 1910), 5.
[i] For a detailed description of the issue, see Streible, Dan. “A History of the Boxing Film, 1894-1915: Social Control and Social Reform in the Progressive Era.” Film History 3:3 (1989), 235-257; and also his “Race and the Reception of Jack Johnson Fight Films” in Bernardi op. cit. 170-200.