|Born||Mar. 31, 1878
|Died||Jun. 10, 1946 (at age 68)
Raleigh, North Carolina
Jack Johnson, also known as the Galveston Giant, was a very famous American boxer during the Jim Crow era. He was the first African-American boxer to be crowned the world heavyweight champion. During his lifetime, he faced a lot of controversy and was even charged with violating the Mann Act in 1912, which made it a felony to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes.
Jack was born in Galveston, Texas, on March 13, 1878. He was the second child and the first son of Henry and Tina Johnson. His parents were former slaves and worked at blue-collar jobs in order to raise their six kids. All of the children were taught to read and write by their parents.
At an early age of 12, Jack decided to leave his hometown by hopping on a freight train. However, he never made it anywhere because he was discovered by a train attendant and was thrown out.
After about five years in school, Jack dropped out to find a job. He got a job in a carriage shop where he worked for an ex-fighter who taught him how to become a boxer. His very first fight had a purse of only $1.50, but he jumped at the chance and won the fight.
Building a Career
On November 1, 1898, while in Galveston, Texas, Jack made his debut as a professional boxer. He was knocked out in the second round by Charles Brooks. On May 8, 1899, he had his third professional fight. He fought with John Hynes and Hynes won this fight on a technical knockout in the fifth round of the scheduled six-round event. In 1900, the two fighters met again and this time, Johnson won the fight by a technical knockout when Hynes refused to come out for the 14th round.
On February 25, 1901, Jack Johnson fought Joe Choynski in Texas. Joe was a very popular and experienced heavyweight fighter who knocked out Johnson in the third round. Since prizefighting was illegal in Texas, the two fighters were arrested, but they could not afford the bail.
After about 23 days in jail, their bail was reduced to a level they could afford. During his time in jail, Johnson learned a lot about boxing and he also became friends with Joe. Later in life, Jack credited his success to the coaching he received from Joe.
Becoming a Champion
On October 21, 1902, Jack Johnson beat Frank Childs, the former colored heavyweight champion. Childs had previously won this title and continued to claim to be the true colored champ despite losing the title in a bout with George Byers. Jack won the title by a technical knockout in the 12th round of the scheduled 20-round event. The defeat by Jack forever ended Childs’ claim to the colored heavyweight crown.
By 1903, Jack Johnson’s record showed nine wins, three losses, and five draws. He won about 50 fights against both white and black opponents. On February 3, 1903, Johnson won his very first major championship – the world colored heavyweight title. His reign was the third longest in a 60-year history of the colored heavyweight title. He went on to defend this title 17 times, only vacating it after winning the world heavyweight title in 1908.
At first, Jack’s efforts to win the world heavyweight title were thwarted when the then-champion, James Jeffries, refused to face him because black boxers were not allowed to fight for the world heavyweight championship in those days. However, on December 26, 1908, Johnson finally won the world heavyweight title in a match with Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia – six years after Joe Gans was the first African-American to hold that title.
Fight of the Century
In 1910, former undefeated heavyweight champion James Jeffries came out of retirement and decided to challenge Jack Johnson. Jeffries had not fought for six years and he had to work hard to lose over 100 pounds to get back to his proper fighting weight.
Racial tension was brewing because of this fight. To prevent any harm, guns were prohibited with the arena and alcohol was not sold to anyone. The famous fight took place on July 4, 1910, with over 20,000 people watching. The fight ended when Jack Johnson won – he took home about $65,000 for winning the bout. This silenced the critics who had earlier belittled Jack’s previous victories.
Jack Johnson was married three times. Each time, he married a Caucasian woman. He had no children and little is known about his religious affiliations. He died as a result of a car crash in North Carolina on June 10, 1946. He was 68 years old.