Jack Johnson "Galveston Giant"

March 31, 1878 - June 10,1946        Galveston, Texas

John Arthur "Jack" Johnson, known as the "Galveston Giant," was an American boxer who, at the height of the Jim Crow era, became the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion (1908–1915). One of the most influential boxers of all time, his 1910 fight against James J. Jeffries was dubbed the "fight of the century." 

According to filmmaker Ken Burns, "for more than thirteen years, Jack Johnson was the most famous and the most notorious African-American on Earth." Transcending boxing, he became part of the culture and history of racism in the United States. Both of his parents were former slaves. Frail as a child, he spent only five years in school before quitting. After a series of menial jobs, he saved up enough money to buy a pair of boxing gloves. His first professional fight was in 1898.

 

On February 25, 1901, Johnson fought Joe Choynski in Galveston. Choynski, a highly skilled and experienced heavyweight, knocked out Johnson in the third round. Prizefighting was illegal in Texas at the time, and they were both arrested. Bail was set at $5,000, which neither could afford. The sheriff permitted both fighters to go home at night so long as they agreed to spar in the jail cell. Large crowds gathered to watch the sessions. After 23 days in jail, their bail was reduced to an affordable level, and a grand jury refused to indict either man. Johnson attested that his success in boxing came from the coaching he received from Choynski. 


The aging Choynski saw natural talent and determination in Johnson and taught him the nuances of defense. The two would remain friends.

On December 26, 1908, Johnson made history when he beat Canadian Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, for the heavyweight title. All existing footage of the Burns fight stops just as he hits the canvas. Before that, Johnson had been the World Colored Heavyweight champion and was denied a chance to fight for the heavyweight championship. Johnson lost the title in 1915 to Jess Willard. He finished boxing with a 73-13 record, including 40 knockouts.

Johnson dominated professional boxing, defeating a string of white opponents. Calls went out for a "Great White Hope" to defeat him. James J. Jeffries, a retired former heavyweight champion famous for breaking the ribs of his opponents, was lured out of retirement in 1910 to fight Johnson. Past his prime, Jeffries adopted an air of bravado to replace his eroded boxing skills, telling reporters: "I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a negro."

 

Johnson destroyed Jeffries, knocking him out and through the ropes in the 15th round. Johnson said he knew Jeffries did not have a chance as early as the fourth round but toyed with him. After the fight, race riots broke out across the United States between jubilant African-Americans and upset whites. At least 20 people were killed.

In 1912, Johnson opened a successful and luxurious "black and tan" (desegregated) restaurant and nightclub, which in part was run by his wife, a white woman. 

Newspapers pointed out that Johnson was being harassed by the government after he achieved fame while married to a white woman, and was also linked to other white women. Johnson was arrested on charges of violating the Mann Act—forbidding one to transport a woman across state lines for "immoral purposes." Sentenced to a year in prison, Johnson fled the country and fought boxing matches abroad for seven years until 1920, when he served his sentence at the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth.

After losing his title in 1915 and going to jail in 1920, Johnson never fought again for the championship. Nevertheless, he still made his way into the ring as a professional for the occasional payday until 1938, when he was 60. He also received numerous lucrative endorsement deals. Johnson's last appearance in the ring came in 1945 in an exhibition to raise money for War Bonds.

 

On June 10, 1946, while traveling through Franklinton, N.C., the former heavyweight champion was refused service at an all-white diner. Angry, he raced off in his car and crashed on U.S. Highway 1. He was taken to the nearest black hospital, 27 miles away, where he died. He was 68.

 

In 1937, Joe Louis knocked out Jimmy Braddock to become the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World since Jack Johnson. On May 24, 2018, Johnson was given a Presidential pardon.  

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