Jack London’s 140th Birthday Reminds Oaklanders of His Roots With His Black “Mother” Jennie Prentiss and the First AME Church
Jennie was a Black woman who saved Jack London’s life at birth, breast-fed him, gave him the name Jack (which was originally John); lent Jack money when he was broke and helped him become the first American author to make a million dollars.
He never forgot his Black roots or his original Black investor who bankrolled his career. He lived in Jennie Prentiss’s house and attended the First African Methodist Episcopal Church at 15th and Market Streets with her as his “mother.”
Jack donated more than $15,000 to the First African American Methodist Church.
Some people claim Jack London was a “bigot” because of a highly publicized turn-of-the-century boxing match between Jack Johnson and Jim Jefferies in Reno, Nevada. London had been hired to write for the loser known as the “The Great White Hope.”
By growing up in a Black family household, Jack often fought racist whites and his classmates who called him a “N—-lover,” which caused him to use fisticuffs as a means of “defensive violence” early in life.
He also devised other survival strategies: taking alternate routes to Jennie’s house or just walking past her house until the bullies were out of sight, allowing him to double back home safely.
Jack dreamed of becoming an oyster pirate on the San Francisco Bay. And to fulfill this dream, he turned again to Jennie Prentiss for financial assistance.
He wrote: “So I interviewed my Mammy Jennie, my old nurse at whose black breast I had sucked. She was nursing sick people at a good weekly wage. Would she lend her ‘white child’ the money? Would she? What she had was mine.”
London was right, because Mrs. Prentiss gave Jack $300 in twenty-dollar gold pieces with which to buy a secondhand sloop called the Razzle Dazzle from an oyster pirate named French Frank. On May 11, 1903, London signed a copy of his book “The God of his Fathers and Other Stories” (1901) for Prentiss. This inscription reads:
“To Dear Mammy Prentiss
With best Love from one
Who loves you well.
In 1906, Jack purchased a home for Jennie Prentiss located at 490 – 27th St. in Oakland. She was 74 years of age and she became a well-known figure within the Bay Area’s African American community, both as a midwife and community leader in various organizations, such as the Federated Negro Woman’s Club, which hosted such luminaries as Booker T. Washington.
Jack London’s last will and testament, signed in 1911, memorialized his love for Jennie Prentiss by providing her with an income for life and money for her funeral expenses.
Jennie Prentiss died in Oakland on Nov. 27, 1922.
The Post plans to re-release the series involving Jack London and Jennie Prentiss in upcoming issues during the Black History and Women’s History month’s editions.
Added festivities are planned this month for Jack London by Anna Lee Allen of the Oakland Tribune, The Oakland Post and the Oakland Heritage Alliance.