Jack Arthur Johnson was the son of a former slave born on 31 March 1878 in Galveston, Texas. His parents made sure he, and all of their children, could read. He eventually dropped out of school to become a dock worker (wikipedia). In 1897 he became a professional boxer and would have 123 bouts on his record by the time he retired in 1928.
In 1901 Joe Choynski, the West Coast champion, knocked Johnson out in a bout. He would then teach him ring tactics as they both sat in jail after a police raid of that fight. “Until the 1920s, public prizefighting was illegal in most states, and matches had to be conducted in secret locations… in private clubs.” (Roberts & Skutt p.53, 147)
By 1903 Johnson defeated the holder of the black heavyweight title held by Denver Ed Martin in a twenty round bout. Jack would defend this title four times over he next two years only to loose it in 1905 (in one of only 13 professional losses during his career).
By 1908 he was finally allowed to fight whites when he fought Tommy Burns in Australia. “Johnson won on a technical knockout in the fourteenth round to become the first black heavyweight champion of the world.” (Roberts & Skutt p.148) With victory came fame and wealth. The Galveston Giant was not one to hide it, and his flaunting of his wealth caused more outrage in many whites. Johnson was also able to defend his title a number of times.
“[R]acial animosity among whites ran so deep that Jack London called out for a “Great White Hope” to take the title away from Johnson.” (wikipedia) That Great White Hope would take the form of former champion James J. Jeffries. Jeffries came out of retirement to battle Johnson on the 4th of July 1910 in Reno in front of 20,000 people. “Johnson proved stronger and more nimble than Jeffries. In the 15th round, after Jeffries had been knocked down twice for the first time in his career, his people called it quits to prevent Johnson from knocking him out. The “Fight of the Century” earned Johnson $65,000 and silenced the critics, who had belittled Johnson’s previous victory over Tommy Burns as “empty,” claiming that Burns was a false champion since Jeffries had retired undefeated.” (wikipedia)
“Blacks in cities across the country burst into an extended celebration, starting race riots in which several people died. The films of Jeffries’s demolition by the black champ were never shown.” (Roberts & Skutt p.148)
Johnson’s bi-racial love life caused further anger in some portions of the population. Eventually his enemies would arrange to have him convicted of transporting Belle Screiber across state lines for immoral purposes. Johnson had befriended her and had given her money to fund a trip form Pittsburgh to Chicago so she could establish a brothel there. The money was a gift and he was not going to profit form her activities.
To avoid prison he fled the country. He eventually ended up in Paris where he continued to defend his title. He would keep the title until 5 April 1915 when Jess Willard would defeat him in Havana, Cuba.
Jack would finally surrender to Federal authorities in 1920 and serve eight months in prison. While in prison he managed to patent an invention; patent #1,413,121 for a specially modified wrench. I’m not sure how many heavyweight champions have also had their own patents, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Jack was the only one.
After prison he would fight sporadically for nearly eight more years before retiring. “Johnson also acted in Hollywood movies, owned a Chicago nightclub, and fought bulls in Spain during his long career. He was working as an amusement arcade entertainer when he died in a car accident in 1946.” (Roberts & Skutt p.149) Some of his film credits include As the World Rolls On (1921) and For His Mother’s Sake (1922). More can be found on his IMDb page (see works cited).
“He wrote two books of memoirs, Mes Combats(in French,1914) and Jack Johnson in the Ring and Out 1927,reprinted 1975).” (findagrave.com)
Not only was The Galveston Giant a great boxer, but he was a great American. He overcame numerous setbacks and disadvantages to reach his dreams. He didn’t just fight in the ring, he fought hard in everything he did.
http://lukemckernan.posterous.com/lives-in-film-no-4-jack-johnson-the-bioscope (an interesting blog post on Jack Johnson)
The Boxing Register, by James B. Roberts and Alexander G. Skutt, copyright 2006 by McBooks Press, Inc.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Johnson_(boxer) (accessed 31 October 2010)
http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0425277/ (accessed 31 October 2010)
http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=6125607 (accessed 31 October 2010)
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/01/Jack_Johnson_boxer.jpg (accessed 31 October 2010)