If you’re into sports history, you’re probably familiar with the great cyclist “Major” Taylor, who was all but exiled from his hometown of Indianapolis, where he helped spark a craze for bicycles. Coming up against the barriers black athletes faced in America, Taylor went overseas to France, New Zealand and Australia — and won global fame.
Yet the Land Down Under had already sent athletes to the U.S. Though born in the Caribbean, one of the best-known black boxers of his time came to Indy from the Southern Hemisphere. At English’s Opera House in 1894, the “great and scientific pugilist of modern times,” Peter Jackson, even performed a classic piece of American literature on the Hoosier stage.
Jackson, middleweight champion of Australia, was born in 1860 on a sugar plantation in the Danish West Indies. His father, Joseph, came from Montego Bay, Jamaica, but the future boxer was actually a Danish citizen. In 1917, the U.S. bought Denmark’s Caribbean colonies, which became the U.S. Virgin Islands. Interestingly, St. Croix, Jackson’s birthplace, was also the boyhood home of the man on the $10 bill, Alexander Hamilton.
Though Denmark abolished slavery on its islands in 1848, Jackson grew up among plantation laborers. Baptized at an Anglican church in Christiansted, St. Croix’s largest town, he was said to have spoken with a good English accent. He probably also spoke Danish.
In 1878, apparently orphaned and with the Caribbean economy in the dumps, the 18-year-old — like Alexander Hamilton a century before — sailed to New York. Jackson was hoping to live with a brother who had already moved there. When he wasn’t able to find him, he signed on as a seaman aboard the H.J. Libby, a vessel bound for the island of Java via Calcutta, India. Loaded up with sugar in what was then the Dutch East Indies, the boat sailed down to a sugar refinery in Australia. Jackson arrived in Sydney in February 1879.
While working on coal boats up and down the coast of New South Wales, he took up bare-knuckle fighting. He also began to refine his skills in scientific pugilism, reportedly from studying “teach yourself” books.
Jackson’s early days in Australia are hard to pin down. But around 1880, he came to the attention of Larry Foley, the Father of Australian Boxing.
Born to Irish parents and almost trained as a Catholic priest, Foley had learned bare-knuckle boxing from a man called “Black” Perry. Referred to in an Australian newspaper as a “darkey,” Black Perry was either an Aborigine or, like Jackson, an immigrant. Starting out as a street fighter and matched against a rival Protestant gang, Foley became a famous prize fighter and helped get the athletic career of young Peter Jackson on its feet.
Lacking contenders who would fight him — some refused because he was black — in 1888 Jackson sailed to San Francisco, where he was one of several Australian expatriate boxers. In 1913, W.W. Naughton, sportswriter for the San Francisco Examiner, recalled that Peter Jackson was “‘the most perfect boxer’ of all the Antipodeans I have seen in action.” Jackson played his first American match at the California Athletic Club against Canadian George Godfrey, a World Colored Heavyweight Champion nicknamed “Old Chocolate.” Naughton mysteriously called Godfrey “Old Ironsides” — oddly enough, the title of a 1926 silent film that another black boxer with the same name, American George Godfrey, later starred in.
By 1891, Jackson would be sparring with a great exponent of scientific pugilism, champion fighter James J. Corbett. “Gentleman Jim” eventually wrote a textbook on the sport. And unlike America’s best-known boxer, John L. Sullivan — who exclaimed “I will not fight a Negro. I never have, and I never shall” — Jim Corbett was happy to go into the ring with Jackson.
In the early 1890s, the two prize fighters met in several matches. One of their more anticipated encounters was slated for 1894. Its location, however, was up for grabs — all part of their managers’ publicity campaign.
Indiana was considered a possibility for the match. Yet the fight’s organizers faced a major hurdle: pugilism was against the law in the Hoosier State, as it was in most. (New York only legalized it in 1896.) With special permits, the Indianapolis Athletic Club, Tomlinson Hall, and Cadle Tabernacle would arrange rare prize fights in the mid-1910s — fights held annually on the eve of the Indianapolis 500 race — but in 1916 even these were squelched by Governor Samuel Ralston, the reformer and Klan favorite. Wider legalization of boxing in Indiana didn’t come about until 1931.
When Jackson came in 1894, accompanied by manager “Parson” Davies and fellow boxer Joe Choynski, many Hoosiers were pushing to get that year’s Corbett-Jackson fight held in Hammond, Indiana. Hammond’s Roby Athletic Club pressured Governor Claude Matthews to give the green light. According to the Indianapolis News, the club even offered to “pay $20,000 into the State Treasury if the Governor will not interfere” — a thinly-veiled bribe. Matthews said “$20,000 was too small a price. . . There is no price sufficient to get permission for one of the contests.” Yet it was more than just the spectacle of two men getting bloodied up that kept the sport banned. Gambling was a factor, too.
Meanwhile, it seems that manager Davies, a Chicago businessman, was trying to tweak Hoosier public opinion in Jackson’s favor — and make some money in the bargain. He and two of his best fighters would appear on a theater stage. The piece they would perform? An adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the great novel some believe was inspired by Tom Magruder, an ex-slave who once lived in frontier Indianapolis.
Jackson and company had been performing this stage version for about a year and even earned rave reviews in San Francisco, where genteel crowds who had come simply to gaze at the famous fighter ended up being surprised by his acting ability. Two performances at English’s Opera House in downtown Indy took place on January 29 and 30, 1894. Once the greatest of Indianapolis theaters, English’s was also a hotel and sat on the northwest corner of Monument Circle until 1948. The venue staged numerous grand and unusual theatrical events, including an onstage chariot race in 1902, when horses ran on treadmills in an adaptation of Ben-Hur.
When an Indianapolis Journal reporter met up with Jackson at Union Station on a cold January night, he winced with pain when the powerful boxer shook his hand. The 6′-1″ Jackson wore a long chinchilla overcoat and carried a black silk umbrella. Davies came in on a train from Florida. In the lobby at the Grand Hotel, the exhausted pugilist excused himself and slipped into an elevator. Davies stayed behind to talk to the reporter. Jackson didn’t like the stage, he said, “but would much rather be in the ring, punching some fellow’s head. But he’s all right in his part, and people who go to see him are not disappointed.”
Getting into costume as Uncle Tom, Jackson pasted a white wool mustache on his upper lip and a gray wool wig over his hair in the dressing room at English’s theater. As he did so, the Australian fighter defended pugilism. An Indianapolis News reporter who was there claimed “five years ago he came to this country with a shipload of pugilists,” then quoted Jackson:
“If the people could all assemble and witness a scientific glove-fight between skilled men, there would be no condemnation… I have known of men’s arms being broken in wrestling matches, of men meeting instant death on the ball-field, and in every other recognized, approved and legalized sport… Pugilism of today includes no gladiatorial battles. Corbett and I will not have knives or swords when we meet. The blows on the point of the chin, on the jugular, over the heart, and so forth, that win fights, produce only momentary collapse… The situation was the same with horse-racing years ago before it was purified.” (January 30, 1894)
Jackson played Uncle Tom, Davies a perfidious auctioneer, and “Chrysanthemum Joe” Choynski was Kentucky farmer George Shelby. A newspaper review said “the audience was top-heavy” — probably meaning they sat in the balcony, where seats were fifty cents. Jim Corbett had also acted on stage, though not in this performance. The News thought Corbett was a better actor than Jackson. (After he left boxing, in fact, “Gentleman Jim” starred in some of the first motion pictures.) Choynski, son of a Jewish rare book dealer from San Francisco and known as an erudite man, sparred with Jackson during a theatrical interlude, which the reviewer judged the best part of the performance. A “colored quartet” of jubilee singers accompanied the show, with “buck and wing dancing.”
The pugilistic theatrical troupe performed at other Hoosier theaters, too — Dolan’s Opera House in Logansport and Naylor’s Opera House in Terre Haute, where papers reported Jackson drank too much. Journalists didn’t think he was taking good care of himself. Even African American Hoosiers were starting to bet on Jim Corbett. In Terre Haute, Jackson stayed up playing cards and drinking in a saloon all night. Curious locals came and stared through a door, the fighter “apparently ignorant of the fact that he was exhibiting himself in a glass cage.” He gambled until 6 a.m., then took a train to Fort Wayne. Reporters thought his muscles were “dissipating.”
With competitive offers from clubs out west, Hammond’s bid to get the 1894 Corbett-Jackson fight failed. And Governor Matthews wasn’t budging an inch. Finally, in May, at their old San Francisco stomping grounds, the much-anticipated contest ended in a draw. Corbett held onto his title in a fight against Peter Courtney that September, captured on film in one of the first boxing movies ever made.
Though still revered as a great sportsman, the 34-year-old Peter Jackson was in decline. His biographer, Bob Petersen, claims he was alcoholic. In protest against the racism that poisoned the American sports world, Jackson refused to box in the American South, though he was the only black man allowed access to the Corbett-Sullivan fight in New Orleans in 1892. (He didn’t go.) Aside from a few brief trips, he wouldn’t even travel in the South.
Though Jackson wasn’t technically an African American, he was a hero to many. Poet James Weldon Johnson said the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass admired Jackson for “solving the Negro problem with his fists.” Yet as Petersen writes: “Jackson was staying at good hotels in the years when Frederick Douglass, the Ambassador to Haiti, if traveling by train, was obliged to sit in the caboose.”
By 1900, when he went back to Sydney, the boxer was suffering from tuberculosis as well as alcoholism. He trained a few fighters, but soon went up the coast to Brisbane and a tuberculosis hospital. In 1901, Jackson traveled out to Roma, a wheat-farming town in Queensland, where the air was drier. He died there on July 13, aged forty. The Australian champion was buried in Brisbane’s Toowong Cemetery under a fascinating gravestone bearing the epitaph “This was a man.” In 1909, American boxing giant Jack Johnson, one of the most famous black athletes of his time, made a pilgrimage to Toowong to pay homage to the mighty Peter Jackson.
He wowed us once in Indy, too.