Jack Johnson (1878?-1946) became the first black heavyweight champion after winning the crown from Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia on December 26, 1908. As a result of this victory, he became the center of a bitter racial controversy with the American public clamoring for the former white champion, Jim Jeffries, to come out of retirement and recapture the crown.
Jack Johnson, who became the first black heavyweight boxing champion in the world in 1908, was the preeminent American sports personality of his era, a man whose success in the ring spurred a worldwide search, tinged with bigotry, for a "Great White Hope" to defeat him. Handsome, successful, and personable, Johnson was known as much for his exploits outside of the ring as for his boxing skills. He married three white women in a time when such interracial unions resulted in denunciations of him from the floor of the United States Congress. He made big money, spent it lavishly, and lived grandly. And in doing so he gained admirers and detractors all over the world and became, quite simply, one of the best known men of the early twentieth century.
Johnson's autobiography, Jack Johnson, In the Ring and Out, remains the key source for information about his early life. In it he writes, "I am astounded when I realize that there are few men in any period of the world's history, who have led a more varied or intense existence than I." Like Muhammad Ali after him, Johnson was not shy about promoting himself or his exploits. Little is known of his early family life; Johnson writes that his three sisters and one brother had little effect on his life. His father was a janitor who was also known to have preached in local churches. He appears to have been closest to his mother, Tiny Johnson, and talks with pride of buying her a house with some of the purses he collected in his long boxing career.
When he was only 12 years old Johnson determined to leave his hometown of Galveston, Texas, and see the world, especially New York City. But getting to the city was difficult. He jumped a freight train, but was discovered, beaten, and thrown off. He jumped a boat, but ended up in Key West and worked as a fisherman. Finally, he hopped a freighter, worked as a cook on board, and reached New York. From there he went to Boston, where he worked in a stable, then hightailed it back to Galveston, where he became a dockworker at the age of 13.
Fought to Survive
Of his co-workers on the Texas waterfront, Johnson wrote, "To them, fighting was one of the important functions of existence. They fought upon every occasion and on any pretext…. Although I was one of the youngest in this rough and aggressive group, I had to do my share of fighting." After a series of street fights in Galveston, Johnson went to Dallas where he started to train as a boxer. Returning to Galveston, he began fighting his first series of bouts. After whipping a man named Pierson—known throughout Galveston as the toughest man in town—Johnson's reputation was firmly fixed. And he had a new nickname, one that he would carry throughout his life, "Lil' Arthur."
Johnson soon outgrew Galveston; he had fought every tough guy in town. So he travelled to Springfield, Illinois, and then to Chicago, fighting in hastily arranged bouts for food and lodging. He was 17 years old when he fought a man named "Klondike" and lost. Johnson claimed that the loss marked the time when he decided he could make a living as a fighter. From Chicago, he went to New York by way of Pittsburgh, fighting all the while. Then it was back to Texas, across the South, and finally out to Denver where he traveled about with a group of other boxers, taking on all comers in all weight classes.
Johnson had been married to a black woman, Mary Austin, since 1898, but in Colorado their marriage broke up, sending Johnson into a state of depression. They had a brief reconciliation, but Johnson writes in his autobiography that the troubles he had with women "led me to forswear colored women and to determine that my lot henceforth would be cast only with white women." In a United States where Jim Crow was the law of the land, that decision would get him into a great deal of trouble. In fact, after Johnson's marriage to the white woman, Etta Duryea, in 1911, a Georgia Congressman, Seaborn Roddenberry, was so incensed he tried to get passed a constitutional amendment banning racial intermarriage. His bill died.
Back in Colorado, Johnson continued to fight while serving as camp cook for the traveling stable of boxers. Eventually he moved west, won the world's light heavyweight championship from a boxer named George Gardiner and began to set his sights on the heavyweight championship of the world. That would prove to be an elusive goal. By the end of 1906, Johnson had fought in 56 official fights and lost only two. But no one would give him a shot at the title. "I had demonstrated my strength, speed and skill, but still faced many obstacles, the principle one of which was the customary prejudice because of my race," he wrote. To win the championship, he had to defeat the reigning champ, Tommy Burns, so Johnson began a two-year quest to get that match.
Champion of the World
Johnson fought in Australia and England and began to generate a worldwide following. The press began to criticize Burns for avoiding Johnson. Finally the fight was set for December 26, 1908, in Sydney, Australia. Thirty thousand people attended the bout; the purse was $35,000, of which only $5,000 went to Johnson. In another concession to get the bout underway, Johnson had to agree to let Burns's manager referee the fight. Even under that manifestly unfair condition Johnson won; the police stopped the fight in the 14th round and Johnson was declared champ.
"A new champion had arrived and that new champion was Jack Johnson," he wrote in his autobiography. "I had attained my life's ambition. The little Galveston colored boy had defeated the world's champion boxer and, for the first and only time in history, a black man held one of the greatest honors which exists in the field of sports and athletics—an honor for which white men had contested many times and which they held as a dear and most desirable one… . To me it was not a racial triumph, but there were those who were to take this view of the situation, and almost immediately a great hue and cry went up because a colored man was holding the championship."
Thus began the era of the "Great White Hope," the name given to the white man who could take the championship belt away from Johnson. Johnson wrote that he "regretted" the racial aspect of the search for a new contender but that he was willing to take on anyone, no matter their color. While the search went on, Johnson fought a few minor bouts and engaged in his second career: that of music hall performer. Throughout his professional life, Johnson was booked on the vaudeville and lecture circuit, singing and dancing, telling stories and giving boxing exhibitions. He performed across the United States and in Europe.
But the life of the stage was not what the public expected of Johnson. They expected him to fight and a good number of them, especially whites upset with Johnson's rich living style and his dating of white women, expected him to be "put in his place" by a white fighter. The ultimate White Hope was Jim Jeffries, the retired heavyweight champ. When Jeffries retired he had anointed Burns as his replacement. With Burns thoroughly beaten by Johnson, the pressure was on Jeffries to come out of retirement and defend the title, and his race. One of the prime movers behind the White Hope search was the novelist Jack London. In an Ebony magazine article about the Johnson-Jeffries bout, London is quoted as writing after the Burns fight, "But one thing now remains. Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his Alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Jack Johnson's face. Jeff, it's up to you. The White Man must be rescued!"
Finally, Jeffries agreed to come out of retirement. The fight was originally set for California, but the governor there intervened and banned the match. The match was then set for Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910. When they climbed into the ring, the 32-year-old Johnson was a trim 208 pounds, while the 35-year-old Jeffries weighed 230 pounds. At 2:45 pm the fight began in front of tens of thousands of people who had gathered under the hot sun. In the weeks preceding the fight, editorial writers had warned that a Johnson victory would give blacks the wrong ideas: that African Americans might get it into their heads to rebel against oppression with their fists like Johnson. There was fear of rioting no matter which way the fight decision went.
According to Ebony, crowds around the world gathered outside of telegraph offices to hear updates of the fight taking place in Reno. The fight itself was, by all accounts, a great one. Jeffries was known for his famous crouch, a bent-over way of boxing. But Johnson neutralized this strategy quickly and landed numerous blows to Jeffries' face. He also taunted the ex-champ, saying, "Let me see what you've got," or "Do something." Johnson recalled in his autobiography, "I recall that occasionally I took time during the exchange of these blows to suggest to telegraph operators what to tell their newspapers." Johnson was "trash talking" before it became fashionable and while some saw his words as evidence that he was in total control of the match, others—mainly whites—never forgave him for it.
In the New York Times, in an article that appeared the day after Johnson died in 1946, sports columnist Arthur Daley had little good to say about Johnson. He called Johnson's taunting of Jeffries an example of Johnson's "inherent meanness" and he talked about the "the stain that Lil' Arthur left on boxing and on his race." It seems that few people could forgive Johnson for what he had done in Reno that hot July day in 1910, when he knocked Jeffries out in the 15th round. In doing so, Johnson collected $60,000, as well as picture rights and bonuses that brought his total take to $120,000, a good sized sum in those days.
The predictions of violence in America came true: race riots erupted in many cities. Whites and blacks engaged in shoot outs and fistfights. As for Johnson, he took to the road to fulfill theatrical contracts, and when he had made some good money doing that, he traveled to London and Paris with his wife, Etta Duryea, who he had married in 1909. Johnson's vanity is evident when he describes his London trip, which occurred during the coronation of King George V: "Despite the fact that the King and his coronation were the center of attention, when my car traveled along London streets and it was announced that I was in sight, the attention of the crowds was turned upon me, and as long as I was in view the coronation ceremonies were forgotten while crowds milled and struggled for a glance at me."
When Johnson returned to the states, he opened a cabaret in Chicago. All races were welcome in his club. After about a year in Chicago, in September of 1912, Johnson's wife Etta committed suicide by shooting herself in the head. It was a great blow to the champ and his interest in boxing and business waned.
Exiled and a Questionable Defeat
Two months later Johnson would face an even greater personal challenge. He was arrested for violating the Mann Act, the statute prohibiting the transportation of women across state lines for unlawful purposes. The woman in question was Belle Schreiber, an old acquaintance of Johnson's. The problem with the charge is that Johnson and Schreiber were an item before the Mann Act became law in June of 1910. "It was a rank frame up," Johnson recalled in his memoirs. "The charges were based upon a law that was not in effect at the time Belle and I had been together, and legally was not operative against me."
That did not stop the courts from finding Johnson guilty in May of 1913, nor did it keep the judge from imposing a sentence of one year and one day in prison, and a fine of $1,000. In the meantime, Johnson had married Lucille Cameron, his 18-year-old white secretary. When the verdict was handed down, Johnson arranged for he and his wife to travel to Canada and, from there, to Paris. For the next seven years, Johnson was an exile from the United States, living in Europe, Mexico, and South America. His lifestyle overseas was lavish, and his exploits, including bullfighting, racing cars, performing on stage, and boxing, continued to receive worldwide attention. While in exile, his mother died, an event which saddened him very much.
On April 5, 1915, Johnson fought Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba. Willard won the bout, and the championship from Johnson, but Johnson would always claim that he threw the fight. He said that he was promised that he could return to the United States and avoid his year-and-a-day jail term if he would give up the championship to Willard, the latest in a line of White Hopes. Whether Johnson did indeed throw the fight, or whether he just got beat, has been a point of contention for many boxing observers since the fight ended by a knockout in the 26th round. "I could have disposed of him long before the final round," Johnson wrote of Willard. John Lardner in Newsweek recalled that Willard described his victory by saying, "I hit him [Johnson] a good uppercut." But Lardner goes on to write, "Very few people outside of Willard believe this, and may be Jess doesn't either."
Whether fixed or fair, the bout cost Johnson the championship and did not end his exile. He wandered the globe for five more years before giving himself up to U.S. authorities in 1920. He served eight months in Leavenworth prison and became the physical director of the inmates, supervising track meets, baseball games, and fight training. While behind bars he continued to track his business interests and he used the time to think long and hard about the prison experience. Johnson came to believe that prison was good for the hardened criminal. But for the man who erred slightly in life, prison does nothing more than to arouse bitterness, Johnson felt. In any event, when he was released from Leavenworth, Johnson was met at the prison gates by a marching band and a horde of friends.
By 1921, Johnson had ended his exile, paid his debt to society, and began a new series of theatrical engagements. In 1924 he and his third wife were divorced and Johnson returned to boxing. He soon won a unanimous decision over a fighter named Homer Smith of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Two years later, at age 48, he beat a 24-year-old boxer named Pat Lester in Mexico.
In his autobiography, Johnson wrote, "I have always been an ardent motorist." He had cars when people were still riding bicycles and horses. Following his release from prison, the only run-ins with the law Johnson had came when he was behind the wheel of a car driving too fast. Five times cars rolled on top of Johnson and five times he survived. The sixth time he was not so lucky. According to the New York Times report of his death, Johnson was driving on Highway 1 near Raleigh, North Carolina, on June 10, 1946, when he lost control of his car, which hit a light pole and overturned. He died three hours later.
In the years before his death, Johnson had lectured at Hubert's Museum on Forty Second Street in New York. It was a seedy job that his friends and observers said allowed the great ex-champ to earn "bread and beer money." His last years were made enjoyable by his marriage to Irene Pineau in 1925. Johnson called her his true love.
The Times called Johnson, "One of the craftiest boxers known to the ring, recognized by many as one of the five outstanding heavyweight champions of all time." Johnson, who was cocky, confident, and talented, would not have disagreed. But as John Lardner wrote in Newsweek after Johnson died, the champ's interest in how he would be remembered ranged beyond boxing. "Whatever you write about me," Lardner remembered Johnson telling him, "Just please remember that I'm a man, and a good one."
Further Reading on Jack Johnson
Johnson, Jack, Jack Johnson, In the Ring and Out, Proteus Publishing, 1977.
Ebony, April 1994, pp. 86-98.
Newsweek, June 24, 1946, p. 90.
New York Times, June 11, 1946, p. 1; June 12, 1946, p. 20.