James Jerome “Cracker” Johnson
Courtesy The Palm
In the black community, the name “cracker” usually denoted a black male born of a black mother and a white father. The male reflected the inherited physiological traits of the father, such as blue eyes, straight hair, sharp nose, and color that would allow him to be considered white. Usually the name “cracker” is attached to the family name as in Cracker Johnson, whose real name was James Jerome Johnson (1877-1946), who lived before and during the Harlem Renaissance in Palm Beach County. Cracker Johnson had a tremendous influence not only in the county but also throughout the state as a result of his “business activities” including gambling and bootlegging. While his education was limited and he could not read or write, he amassed a fortune during the late teens and twenties and continued to develop projects that brought even more money than he would make in his “business activities”. He was shot and killed on July 2, 1946, allegedly by a hired killer of a white mob interested in breaking his financial hold on Palm Beach County.
“Flapper Days” was the era in which Cracker Johnson created his financial empire in spite of the stock market crash in 1929 and the depression that followed. The depression had no affects on his earnings and he became the employer of many of those who were jobless.
He was born in Savannah, GA in 1877 and at age sixteen became a cabin boy on a freighter. This job provided the opportunity for him to travel and see other cities. He then worked as a constable before moving to Florida where he established a moonshine business in 1899. Johnson also developed gambling and pawn brokering businesses and used the money to purchase real estate all over Florida. Cracker Johnson built a red brick jail in 1921 at the corner of Second Street and Rosemary Avenue, which housed blacks only. When Blacks were arrested, they were jailed outside the city because of segregation. Cracker Johnson provided money for the strained city budget to purchase tools and equipment for criminals to use while incarcerated. He later loaned the city $50,000 to balance the budget. Cracker Johnson owned and operated the Florida Bar on Rosemary Avenue where the employees were required to dress in cut-away dinner jackets, tuxedo trousers, winged collared dress shirts with studs and cufflinks and bow ties.
Cracker Johnson married Ella Johnson in Quincy, Florida and they had two daughters, Marguerite and Edye. Ella was educated and owned quite a bit of property and had a white father and black mother. According to tax records his earnings in 1926 was $687,000; in 1927 it was $792,000 and in 1928 it was $971,000.
His church, the Boy and Girl Scouts, his lawyers, those seeking a college education, and anyone who was in need, knew him as a philanthropist. Cracker and his wife traveled extensively and often took friends with them to New York, Detroit, Chicago, Palm Beach, and Los Angeles and to Cuba to attend the Jack Johnson fight. His home had an automatic sprinkler system, special awnings that served as shutters and he had palm trees installed to house the parrot caged in those trees. Cracker Johnson’s house still stands today in West Palm Beach.
Written by staff at the School District of Palm Beach County