by Carrie C. Causey
FRANKLINTON — Cutchin’s Funeral President Joseph Cutchins Jr. remembers hearing the tale of how his family’s company was called to take famed boxer Jack Johnson to the hospital after a car wreck on U.S. 1A in 1946. He was dead on arrival.
Monday, 67 years later to the day, a plaque was installed commemorating the event at Cutchins Funeral Home, formerly the Franklin Funeral Home.
The initiative to get the plaque was led by Andrew Carroll, author of Here Is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History, whose goal is to find unmarked historic sites all over the country and preserve them.
“I’m going to all 50 states and meeting people and talking about stories that deserve attention of prominent figures in the 21st century,” Carroll said.
It was the reaction to a common trend in those times that led to Johnson’s death.
Johnson was traveling from a speaking engagement in Miami and he stopped at a local diner in Apex, Cutchins said. The employees wouldn’t serve him because he was black and told him to go around back.
“He told them he was the heavyweight champion of the world and would not go around back,” Cutchins said. “He took his rage out on his car.”
Some accounts say he was speeding and lost control and ran into a pole.
“Dad heard the accident from the barbershop and ran down there,” Cutchins added. “He had no idea who it was. But when he got there everyone was just standing around because they realized [the victim] was black.”
Carroll said, at the time white emergency personnel wouldn’t take black people to the hospital.
“They would call for the colored undertaker,” Cutchins said.
Cutchins said the stretcher was unique because it transported the sick to the hospital, rubbed down in pine oil, then if the person died they would wrap them in sheets and bring them back to the funeral home in the same stretcher.
Kenneth Mangrum of Franklin Funeral Home drove Johnson to St. Agnes Hospital in Raleigh where he was declared dead on arrival. The valet who was with him in the car survived and was taken to a hotel in Franklinton, though Cutchins said he probably had to stay in a closet because he was black.
Joseph “Tre” Cutchins III, said he learned about Johnson in an N.C. A&T class the day before his father told him the funeral home would be getting the plaque.
“It freaked the class out,” he said. “But I was very proud.”
Sharing the stories of American history is what the project is about.
Carroll first became interested in Johnson after doing research about Caledonia, N.C. Correctional Institute where an inmate invented the short-stroke piston used in the M1 carbine rifle. Carroll did a search for other inmates who invented things and found out there were only two others. One of them was Johnson, who earned a patent for a modified wrench.
“While I was reading up on him, I found out how extraordinary he was,” Carroll said. “Not only was he the first black world heavyweight boxing champion, he was (the first) arrested under the Mann Act for transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. The woman was his fiancee who happened to be a prostitute and was white.”
While that case was dropped, he was charged again for similar circumstances by someone willing to testify.
Johnson was sentenced to a year in prison, though he fled for seven years before he served the time. There have been several proposals for a posthumous presidential pardon, but it so far hasn’t happened.
In addition to the plaques to be installed inside and outside the funeral parlor, Carroll hopes to get a marker at the spot the accident took place just outside of town. Though Cutchins said he has had trouble getting a marker in the past because Johnson wasn’t a North Carolina native.
Other ‘Here is Where’ sites include Mound City, Ark., where a Civil War maritime disaster occurred that killed more than in the Titanic tragedy; Saluda, Va., where an African-American refused to give up her seat on a bus 10 years before Rosa Parks; and Paisley Five Point Caves, Ore., where the oldest human DNA in America was discovered.
For more information or to suggest a story, visit hereiswhere.org.