The Jack Johnson V. Barney Oldfield Match Race of 1910; What It Says about Race in America

By Knott, Rick | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 2005 | Go to article overview

The Jack Johnson V. Barney Oldfield Match Race of 1910; What It Says about Race in America


Knott, Rick, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


In the fall of 1910 the king of American speed, automobile racer Barney Oldfield, raced boxing's heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson in a automobile race at New York's Sheapshead Bay Track. Like other heavyweight champions before him, Johnson sought numerous ways to capitalize on his name recognition from the moment he won the championship. After his successful July 4th, 1910 defense of his title against the popular Jim Jeffries, he began seeking a match race with a prominent racecar driver. Barney Oldfield was the most famous racecar driver of the era, and as a personal friend of Jeffries, was a logical choice for such a race. The tide of public opinion against the black boxer made it challenging to arrange the race. The AAA Contest Board, the sanctioning body of motor sports at the time attempted to prevent the race from occurring, but the entrepreneurial spirit of the two drivers won out, but at great personal sacrifice to both participants. The event took place in October 1910, and probably did not live up to expectations. It had the disadvantage of being obscured in the newspapers by the carnage that accompanied the annual Vanderbilt Cup race held on Long Island. Although largely forgotten, a careful examination of this important event reveals much about America of the early twentieth century. Through the examination of this important event and the characters involved, this paper illustrates the tensions between old and new world values in a changing America, as well as the institutionalization of racism in America.

Historians commonly call early twentieth century America the progressive era. With the intrusion of the railroad, and the increasing dependency on industrialism, and the creation of a single national market, small agrarian communities were losing independence. Historian Robert Wiebe argued that the progressive era is characterized by a fundamental shift in values, away from small town values to specialization and communities of professionals. (1) As America emerged into the twentieth century, the society was more industrial and less agrarian than it had been before. The automobile industry is an example of industrial progress that succeeded in spite of great social criticism.

Around the turn of the century, a trend emerged where concerned citizens frequently joined forces and organized around a certain issue or common interest for their collective good. Commensurate with this trend, motorists recognized the advantages of organizing. In 1902, the American Automobile Association was formed in order to represent the rights of motorists. The AAA is a national organization that works through a confederacy of local automobile clubs. The AAA worked as a lobbying organization for laws at all levels of government that protected the motorist, and sought to establish uniform licensing regulations, speed limits, and better roads. As a sideline, the AAA organized what became known as the AAA Contest Board as a sanctioning body to govern motor sports. The AAA's interest in establishing some form of legitimate control over motor sports and speed records was to provide manufacturers with an opportunity to test products. (2) This was a common rationale for automobile racing, and at the time was congruent with the mission of the AAA. Building better automobiles served the constituency of the AAA.

Automobile racing is a strange by-product of an industrial age, growth in technology, popular culture, and the creative and competitive instincts rooted in human nature. A generation of Americans recognized the name Barney Oldfield as a synonym for speed. For the first half of the twentieth century, motorists caught in speeding violations were commonly asked; "who do you think you are, Barney Oldfield?" (3) Oldfield began his career as a bicycle racer. Perhaps because of the courage it took to compete as a cyclist, or perhaps because of his competitive fire, in 1902 he made a smooth transition into automobile racing, winning his first race driving a Ford 999, and beating the well-known racing champion, Alex Winton. …

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