He laid the foundation for what was possible!
Jack Johnson was born John Arthur Johnson in Galveston, Texas on March 31, 1878, Encyclopedia Britannica reports. The son of formerly enslaved people, Johnson fought through the racism of the Jim Crow South to be a renowned heavyweight boxing champion. He stood up in the face of injustice, literally fighting back against racism and discrimination.
An author, athlete and advocate, Johnson held a three-decade career as a professional boxer, continuing exhibition fights well into his late 60s. He passed away from an automobile accident at the age of 68, leaving an enduring legacy of triumph in the face of unbelievable turmoil. In honor of that legacy, here are 4 things you should know about Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight boxing champion, courtesy of Sports Illustrated:
Johnson got his start as a street fighter in Texas.
As a teenager, Johnson worked the docks. He eventually left home at the age of 16 and settled in New York, working as a janitor and in the stables. A shop owner in Dallas introduced Johnson to boxing during the late 1800s, the 6ft, 220-pound fighter taking to the sport naturally. He began participating in local fights, eventually moving to Chicago where he linked up with his first promoter. In 1899, he lost his first fight in a knockout defeat against Klondike Haynes. The following year, he beat Haynes, earning his first $1,000 as a boxer. In 1901, Johnson was back in Galveston, losing a fight to Joe Choynski. Prizefighting being illegal in the state, both men were imprisoned, spending 23 days in jail. While there, Choynski helped Johnson work on his defensive technique.
He made history as the first Black heavyweight boxing champion in 1908.
Johnson grew up in Galveston’s Twelfth Ward, a racially diverse area where he was a member of the 11th Street and Avenue K gang, which consisted of both Black and white members. As a result, Johnson previously admitted that he didn’t experience much racism as a child, a reality that unfortunately didn’t follow him into adulthood. As he rose through the boxing ranks, winning the World Colored Heavyweight title in 1903, promoters began looking to pair him with mainly white opponents, many white boxers refusing to face him. In 1908, Johnson made history as the first Black heavyweight boxing champion, defeating Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia in a 14th round fight that had to be broken up by the local police. The historic win further enraged white audiences, author Jack London spearheading a movement for the “Great White Hope,” a white opponent who could challenge Johnson for his title.
In 1910, fighter Jim Jeffries came out of retirement to become the first of many white boxers up for the challenge. Billed as the “Battle of the Century,” Johnson defeated Jeffries in the 15th round, Jeffries telling reporters that “on [his] best day, [he] couldn’t have beaten Jack Johnson.” The win led to celebrations by African-Americans everywhere which were often met by white violence, leading to more than 20 deaths across the U.S.
Johnson fled the U.S. after being convicted to prison for having interracial relationships.
While Johnson’s successful career put a target on his back, the hatred for him was heightened from white supremacists as a result of his personal lifestyle, becoming known for his lavish lifestyle and interracial relationships. Twice married to white women, Johnson was arrested in 1912 and convicted the following year for violations of the Mann Act, after being caught transporting his soon-to-be white wife across state lines for what the state deemed “immoral purposes.”
He was sentenced to one year in prison but rather than turn himself in, Johnson fled to Canada, eventually making his way to Europe where he remained as a fugitive, continuing to fight across Europe, South America and Mexico. Being on the run, his earning potential was stifled, and he defended his title three times in Paris before losing it in 1915 against Jess Willard, a 26 round fight that took place in Havana, Cuba. In 1920, he eventually surrendered to U.S. officials and was detained at Leavenworth Federal Prison where he continued his fights.
Despite the racism he faced, Johnson became an international boxing star and left a lasting legacy.
No matter the challenges, Johnson maintained an impressive career, continuing a 33-year career that included an official 54-11-9 record with more than 100 off-the-record fights and 80 wins. He wrote two memoirs over the course of his career, Mes Combats (1914), and Jack Johnson in the Ring and Out (1927). Even after officially leaving the ring, he continued to perform in exhibition style fights up until a year before his death at the age of 68. Johnson’s life was the subject of several films, including The Great White Hope (1970) and Ken Burns’ Unforgivable Blackness (2004). Johnson was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990 and posthumously pardoned of his crimes by President Donald Trump in 2018.
We remember the life and legacy of the Galveston Giant. Because of Jack Johnson, we can!
4 things you should know about Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight boxing champion. Photo Courtesy of Hulton Archive/PBS