Joe Jennette gone but not forgotten – August 26th marks the passing of ring legend Joe Jennette (aka Jeannette). In the early twentieth century Jennette stands out as one of the best gladiators to ever enter the squared circle. Typically the racial issue is the first thing to come to mind for boxing fans when you mention the likes of Jennette and the men he is tied to forever such as Sam Langford, Sam McVea, and Jack Johnson. But Joe’s story is a quiet one, just like the man himself. Joe was very workmanlike; he did not have a big mouth, he minded his own business and he was described as a gentlemen that had high moral character — the type that would never be involved in headline incidents, let alone a scandal. Perhaps this is why there is so much misinformation about him out there from his birth location to his ethnicity to even the spelling of his name. Instead of glossing over information that is typically thrown out on him such as the fight to the finish with McVea, let’s instead take a look at the man himself, on the inside, as he would prefer us to on his birthday.
Joe was born in New Durham, in the Homestead section of North Bergen, New Jersey to a light-skinned German heritage mother and a dark-skinned father of Arabic heritage. Joe knew racism all too well from his very first memories due to having a white mother and black father. His father Benjamin Franklin Jennette would pass away when he was only three years old shortly after emigrating to Whitesboro, New Jersey to escape southern racism. Somewhat ironic that the supposed haven for blacks was called Whitesboro but yet one of the town’s founders was Booker T. Washington. After Benjamin’s death Joe’s mother remarried another black man, a man by the name of Franklin Marshall who had the unfortunate luck of getting run over by a trolley car and losing his right leg below the knee. The family had to pick up the slack which meant grueling work hours in tough trades due to blacks not getting factory jobs, and even the lightest skinned of Joe’s thirteen brothers and sisters did not have “good hair,” as it was called at the times, which referred to long and straight hair that was used as a gauge for how white a person was. Racism ran so deep that even Joe’s white family members would only be inside the house when visiting, not wanting to be seen in public.
Despite the hardships Joe had a great outlook on life. His mother was a very strong woman that constantly reminded the fourteen kids to not be ashamed of who they were. She would boastfully claim that the sneering racists (both blacks and whites disapproved of the mixed family) were simply jealous of how much they all loved each other. Frank would go much further and tell the children that people were simply left out of their family secret. The children would lean in towards him to listen as he said “only we know that people are the same inside here,” as he pointed to his heart. Frank had worked under Joe’s father Benjamin as a farrier’s apprentice and loved telling the children tales about Benjamin to inspire them. One Joe remembered fondly was his father working as a farrier (a craftsman who trims and shoes the hooves of horses) during the Civil War under General Phillip Kearney. Kearney lost his left arm during the Mexican War but would still lead charges with his sword held by the right arm and saddle reins in his mouth. Frank always told them that if General Kearney could do battle with one arm, they could do anything they wanted.
Joe was enthralled with hard work and discipline. The workmanlike attitude took hold and was constantly reinforced by Frank as a child. In the summer the family would occasionally go to the beach at Long Branch on Sundays and even there, when Joe would marvel at the waves, Frank would give him helpful life lessons, telling him how his life as a colored man was going to be like the waves because he would crash forward with progress only to get pulled back out to the deep waters. He told him to “never stop moving your arms” and that he would have to work twice as hard as anyone else to achieve his dreams. Frank was not all doom and gloom, he was simply a realist that was coaching and molding Joe for the real world. Joe had an optimistic outlook, likely formed by his happy family setting despite the world around them. One other piece of advice that never left Joe was Frank telling him that one day people will see that love is color blind. A hope that Joe always held onto. On days he got down he would look to the humorous side of his mother, who told the kids that all the white people sat in the sun to try and get beautiful brown skin like theirs. The irony being that her skin was whiter than most of the cat-callers when they were out and about town.
Amid the tough times with his interracial family Joe was able to stay positive. He stayed so positive that he heeded the advice of his first trainer, George Armstrong, as he jumped into the deep end of the pool by hastily turning professional and fighting vastly experienced fighters immediately out of the gate, going 0-3 and suffering a knockout loss before taking on Jack Johnson for his fourth bout. Armstrong did not even tell him who he was fighting until he was at the venue, only saying that it was an exhibition match so there was nothing to worry about. What he didn’t say was that Johnson was trying to impress reporters by having back-to-back fights and was looking to stop both his opponents. Jennette, despite the massive lack of experience and weight (giving up nearly 20lbs to the Galveston Giant), held his own in a losing but valiant effort over six rounds as Johnson tried to knock him out but simply couldn’t. Jennette always said this is the moment when he knew he picked the right profession — when he knew he could make it as a boxer. Despite an 0-4 record, Joe was convinced that he would be the best boxer in the world some day. Only with that positive attitude (and as Jack Dempsey would say “ignorance is a great asset”) was Joe ready to conquer boxing. The Ironman vowed that he would never be stopped again and would rise to boxing’s greatest heights. The former is a promise that Jennette would argue he kept until the day he died and the latter is a promise he most definitely kept.
Happy birthday Joe Jennette Gone But Not Forgotten.