Year
1910

Barney Oldfield defeats boxer Jack Johnson in Brooklyn auto race

On October 25, 1910, white race car driver Barney Oldfield beats prizefighter Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world, in two five-mile car races in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.

Oldfield and Johnson had a history: Oldfield’s friend, the white heavyweight champ James J. Jeffries, had quit boxing in 1908 because he did not want to fight a black man for his title. In July 1910, Jeffries came out of retirement to fight Johnson at last, but lost in 15 rounds. (Twenty-six people were killed and hundreds were injured in the nationwide riots that followed the black fighter’s victory.) After that, Johnson was unable to find anyone who would fight him—so, he turned to car racing instead. In October 1910, he challenged Oldfield to a race.

Oldfield, a flamboyant daredevil who had just set a new land-speed record (131 mph) in his Blitzen Benz, accepted the challenge at once. The competitors bet $5,000 on the contest—the driver who won two out of three five-mile heats would win the bet—and invited a Hollywood crew to film the race. But there was a problem: in order to make the race official, Johnson needed a license from the American Automobile Association, but the AAA refused to license black drivers. What’s more, the organization told Oldfield that it would rescind his license if he went through with the race. But bets had been made and contracts signed, so the race was on!

Rain delayed the race several times, but on October 25 the skies were clear. Five thousand people gathered at the Brooklyn track, waving their hats and cheering for the movie cameras. Oldfield, driving a 60-horsepower Knox car, won the first heat by a half-mile, in 4:44. In the second, he slowed down a bit—he kept just ahead of Johnson’s bright-red car, taunting the boxer as he drove–but won the race in 5:14. There was no need for a third heat: Barney Oldfield was the winner.

Eighteen months later, the AAA reinstated Oldfield and he began to race again. A few years later, he drove the first 100-mph lap in the history of the Indianapolis 500 race. Johnson’s luck was not as good: Many people resented his success, and especially his habit of dating white women, and he was arrested several times on trumped-up violations of the Mann Act. As a result, he spent a year in federal prison. Johnson died in a car accident in 1946. He was 68 years old.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Battle of Agincourt

During the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, Henry V, the young king of England, leads his forces to victory at the Battle of Agincourt in northern France. Two months before, Henry had crossed the English Channel with 11,000 men and laid siege to Harfleur in ...read more

Charge of the Light Brigade

In an event alternately described as one of the most heroic or disastrous episodes in British military history, Lord James Cardigan leads a charge of the Light Brigade cavalry against well-defended Russian artillery during the Crimean War. The British were winning the Battle of ...read more

Pablo Picasso born

Pablo Picasso, one of the greatest and most influential artists of the 20th century, is born in Malaga, Spain. Picasso’s father was a professor of drawing, and he bred his son for a career in academic art. Picasso had his first exhibit at age 13 and later quit art school so he ...read more

First kamikaze attack of the war begins

On this day in 1944, during the Battle of the Leyte Gulf, the Japanese deploy kamikaze (“divine wind”) suicide bombers against American warships for the first time. It will prove costly–to both sides. This decision to employ suicide bombers against the American fleet at Leyte, an ...read more

Nixon vetoes War Powers Resolution

President Nixon vetoes the War Powers Resolution, which would limit presidential power to commit armed forces abroad without Congressional approval. The bill, introduced by Senator Jacob K. Javits of New York, required the president to report to Congress within 48 hours after ...read more

Nixon suspends bombing of North Vietnam

The White House orders a suspension of bombing above the 20th parallel as a signal of U.S. approval of recent North Vietnamese concessions at the secret peace talks in Paris. According to Nixon administration officials, the principal obstacle to a cease-fire was in Saigon. South ...read more

Wrestling legend Dan Gable is born

On October 25, 1948, wrestling legend Don Gable is born in the tiny town of Waterloo, Iowa. His father was a real-estate salesman and former high-school wrestling star; his mother was a homemaker. In high school, Gable ran track, swam and played football and baseball. He didn’t ...read more

John Adams marries Abigail Smith

On this day in 1764, future President John Adams marries Abigail Smith. This devoted couple’s prolific correspondence during their married life has provided entertainment and a glimpse of early American life for generations of history buffs. Future first lady Abigail Adams was ...read more

Russian military plane crashes into mountain

On this day in 2000, a Russian military plane crashes into a mountain in Georgia, killing all 83 people on board. Poor visibility and pilot error caused the horrific crash. The Ilyushin-18 jet was built in 1968 and was used to transport military personnel. On October 25, a crew ...read more

United States invades Grenada

President Ronald Reagan, citing the threat posed to American nationals on the Caribbean nation of Grenada by that nation’s Marxist regime, orders the Marines to invade and secure their safety. There were nearly 1,000 Americans in Grenada at the time, many of them students at the ...read more