In June of 1946, the ex-heavyweight champion of the world, a flamboyant, cigar-smoking man with tailored suits and expensive cars, a trailblazing fighter who rose to fame unthinkable for a black man during Jim Crow, crashed his Lincoln Zephyr in the little town of Franklinton.
The story of Jack Johnson’s fatal wreck, just 25 miles from Raleigh, remains notorious given that one of world’s most recognizable men was refused aid from a white ambulance driver and died in a segregated hospital. Seven decades later, Jack Johnson remains a towering figure in both sports and civil rights, an icon who turns up in rap songs, comic books and a gag line from Ron Burgundy in “Anchorman.”
The life of “The Galveston Giant” inspired a Tony-winning play, a movie starring James Earl Jones and a documentary by Ken Burns, master of the slow zoom. But those works gave scant mention to the champion’s final hours. A new film follows Johnson’s life to the people who saw it end at a curve on U.S. 1.
“My daddy heard it from the barbershop and came running,” said Joe Cutchins Jr., 73, funeral director in Franklinton. “He was the undertaker in town, and as they carried Jack away, he wrote this epitaph: He drove too far, too fast, too long.”
Making a Johnson documentary with a local emphasis could be tricky considering so much about the fighter’s end remains in dispute: whether he died en route to St. Agnes’ Hospital, the shell of which still stands on Oakwood Avenue in Raleigh, or whether he could have gotten life-saving care at Rex Hospital, which then catered only to white patients. Two of the men interviewed for “Jack Johnson: The Night it Happened,” even disagree about the year of the crash.
Aaron Snowell, the film’s co-producer, comes to the story from a variety of directions. Boxing fans know him as Mike Tyson’s trainer, ringside at the disastrous Buster Douglas fight of 1990. But Snowell’s mother came from Franklin County, and friends there urged him to take on the project. In 2015, the Franklin County commissioners approved $5,000 in grant funds for the film, and the witnesses from 1946 gave their accounts at Town Hall.
Johnson left his mark as a fighter for the colossal 1910 bout against James J. Jeffries, pegged as “The Great White Hope” by fans unable to stomach a black champion. Touted as the fight of the century, Johnson’s knockout punches sparked race riots even after Jeffries admitted, “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best.” But equally prominent in the fighter’s history is his arrest after he had a relationship with an alleged prostitute, thought to be racially motivated.
“We want to retell the story with him as an American icon,” said director Rob Underhill, who also made “Dar He” about Emmett Till’s 1955 murder in Mississippi. “Both overcoming all obstacles and doing it with a level of grace and humility. We’ve uncovered quite a bit of information, possibly the way the accident really transpired.”
“We don’t think he was driving,” added Snowell, hinting at the film’s revelations.
In 1946, U.S. 1 snaked through a series of small towns across North Carolina, unlike the wide, four-lane, divided highway that now passes west of Franklinton. On Thursday, Cutchins drove me along the route Johnson and his hired man Fred Scott would have driven in their 1939 Zephyr.
“We call this Cadillac curve,” said Cutchins, navigating a sharp right, “because of all the cars that end up in the ditch.”
The road now known as South Main Street presents a driver with several curves and dips, which Johnson’s Zephyr took at an estimated 80 mph. Many accounts, including Cutchins’, portray Johnson as driving fast and furious because he was refused seating at a nearby diner, though biographer Wayne Rozen told The News & Observer in 2011, “That may have happened, but those reports have never been substantiated.”
Whatever the driver’s motivation, the car struck a light pole just beyond Evergreen Cemetery. Cutchins, who hangs a wreath on that pole each year, pointed to the hill across the road where his father, the undertaker, came running in time to hear the wounded champ say, “I’ll be all right.”
Funeral homes provided ambulance service in those days, and Franklinton’ white funeral home refused to carry Johnson. So Cutchins’ father dispatched an employee, Kenneth Mangum, to drive Johnson to Raleigh in his big Packard hearse. Scott, Cutchins said, had to stay in a closet in an all-white hotel.
“I feel like my family’s part is my connection to boxing history,” said Cutchins, who lost track of the stretcher used to lift Johnson but still keeps a photograph of the hearse. “Most of the youth around here don’t know anything about it.”
The elder Cutchins’ epitaph does not appear on Johnson’s grave. But the younger funeral director carries his father’s story like an heirloom, enough that he has unsuccessfully sought a historic marker from the state and written President Barack Obama asking – as have many – that the fighter be pardoned.
Johnson spent only a few doomed minutes in Franklinton, the town that placed a period on the showy sentence of his life. But I applaud the town for marking those minutes in the largest letters it can, big enough for its offspring to see.