In 1893, 28 years after the abolition of slavery in the United States, a poster advertised a touring theatrical production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, based upon Harriet Beecher Stowe’s wildly popular 19th century novel. At the centre of the poster stands the winsome figure of Peter Jackson – only the second black man to play the role of Uncle Tom – hovering in the foreground, incongruous and bare-chested.
Jackson came reluctantly to the role and stated he would prefer to have played Othello – a garish, bangled one – for he had ‘made a study of Ethiopian and Moorish history’. Besides, Jackson was a rusted on Shakespearean, carrying with him always the great Bard’s works, from which he regularly quoted verbatim, as well as other respectable literature of the day, like Carlyle and Ruskin.
Jackson’s appearance in Uncle Tom’s Cabin was peculiar because he was not in fact born in America but in the Danish colonial possession of St Croix in 1860 and had a distinct accent. It was peculiar for another reason. Before the production aired each evening there would be a boxing exhibition held on the same raked stage as a curtain opener, featuring none other than…Peter Jackson.
For Jackson, amongst his many other colourful vocations and interests, was in actual fact a professional boxer, sailing across the Pacific and Atlantic for a chance at the World Heavyweight boxing title.
As Jackson’s biographer, Bob Petersen, noted of the production, this combination of Jackson inhabiting the role of the adroit pugilist dominating an opponent on stage at the beginning of the evening and later appearing in quiet equanimity as Uncle Tom being whipped on stage, was a strange admixture. Indeed too much to absorb for one visitor to the show who, upon seeing Jackson being flogged on stage as Tom, jumped out of his seat yelling ‘knock him down Peter.’
Boxing careers were and remain notoriously short and unstable so Jackson decided that – like his peers Joe Choynski, Jim Corbett and John L Sullivan – dipping into the world of acting was not the worst idea if you wanted to build your profile and earnings. Jackson got the lead role because he was already, in modern parlance, ‘a brand’.
The arrival of Jackson in America in 1890 (his third trip) caused a sensation, particularly in black American life. When he arrived in St Louis by train, 500 black people crowded the depot to give him a rapturous welcome. In Louisville, Kentucky he received ‘uproarious applause’ from ‘the gallery, where the coloured men were packed like sardines’ and such scenes were repeated in other places like Ogden. Wherever Jackson went he packed houses; in Brooklyn, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Washington and so on – different racial mixes, some adoring, some venomous but at all times engaged.
In 1892, a group of young black men in Texas, led by Professor E.L. Blackshear, set up a sporting outfit known as ‘The Peter Jackson Club’ where manly, corporeal pursuits would be availed to the black man.
So popular was Jackson that he seemed to fuse black ‘consciousness’ and compact class snobbery. Frederick Douglass, previously dismissive about the value of forcible black physicality, changed his mind after a visit to Haiti in 1889 and some reflections on the nation’s revolutionary leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture. The idea that a black man could be someone of intellect and imposing physicality all seemed to come together for him and Jackson came to stand in for that ideal – fused as always in the world of boxing and American Jehovah ‘s – in the figure of this rugged, Adamantine individual. After this Haitian epiphany, Douglass kept a photo of Jackson in his office, stating ‘Peter is doing a great deal with his fists to solve the Negro question.’
Indeed so popular was Jackson, says Bob Petersen, that he was approached by some black leaders to lead a separate black state, in other words kick out the Texans and make a state there. But that had already been tried with Liberia and besides, Jackson wasn’t interested. Jackson’s ambition was to win the world heavyweight title although it wasn’t always so.
Jackson left his native St Croix in 1878 as a sailor, intending to find his older brother James who had earlier left for New York. But when Peter arrived James had been absorbed by the metropolis and with no accommodation or means of sustenance, Jackson had to continue on as a sailor. The exploitative conditions proved too much so after touching in at Calcutta and Java, Jackson jumped ship in Sydney harbour.
After working as a lumberjack, fireman, machinist, longshoreman and stoker Jackson’s boxing career got underway when he came to the attention of the famous Sydney boxing figure, Larry Foley. On the evening of a local election in 1880, Foley noticed Jackson fighting off and beating a number of hoodlums down a laneway. Suitably impressed, Foley invited Jackson to come up and see him sometime, which he duly did – fighting practically every night and earning money as a roustabout in Foley’s pub which doubled as a boxing venue.
In 1886, Jackson won the Australian heavyweight title and with no-one left to fight, left for America for the first time in 1888. Thereafter he would continue traversing the Pacific and Atlantic in pursuit of the World Heavyweight title; the UK in 1889, America again in 1890, Australia in 1890, then back to America in 1891.
After winning the Australian Heavyweight title in 1886, he then defeated George Godfrey in California in 1888 to become World Coloured Heavyweight champion. He then challenged UK heavyweight champion Jem Smith – fighting his way across America before embarking for the showdown in 1889. Jackson won after Smith was disqualified for holding but it wasn’t a championship fight so Smith retained the title. The next year in Bruges, Smith lost the title to Paddy Slavin, an Australian boxer who Jackson had taught. In 1892, Jackson beat Slavin but that wasn’t a championship fight either so Jackson never won the British title.
This pattern of white heavyweight boxing champions raising the colour bar and refusing to put their titles on the line is the enduring theme of Jackson’s career. Whether by straightforward race hatred or by evasion a scroll of boxing champions refused to give Jackson an opportunity to contest for the title of World Heavyweight champion – a title boxing historian Gerald Early has described as being akin to the Emperor of Masculinity.
Jem Smith, Paddy Slavin, John L Sullivan, Jim Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons (another taught be Jackson) and Jim Jeffries were all heavyweight champions who refused Jackson his opportunity, a fact well attested at the time. By doing so they denied the world the opportunity to witness the first black World Heavyweight champion, formally speaking. That title would go to Jack Johnson in Rushcutters Bay in Sydney in 1908.
There are few boxing stories that end well and Jackson was no exception. Having been denied a title shot and past his boxing and acting prime, he took off at age 38 to the Klondike mines in Canada with Paddy Slavin to provide the gold-miners boxing entertainment, where they threw nuggets in the ring. But by then Jackson had contracted consumption.
In a bad way he returned to Australia. But Brisbane was too dank and he deteriorated before he went to Roma, where he died in 1901. Buried in Toowong Cemetery he has a magnificent monument etched with the words from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar ‘This was a man’.
Sam Fitzpatrick, a trainer for both Peter Jackson and Jack Johnson, stated that of the two, Jackson was the superior boxer. That Peter Jackson is an also-ran in sporting and historical consciousness is a shame given his enormous sweep and talent but little of that was for want of trying.
*Originally appeared in Vice