“The possession of muscular strength…does not necessarily imply a lack of appreciation for the finer and better things of life.”
In 1908, Boxer Jack Johnson, the son of ex-slaves and the third of nine children, became the first African American World Heavyweight Boxing Champion.
Johnson, born in Galveston, Texas, in 1878 and nicknamed “the Galveston Giant,” possessed an air of confidence and drive to exceed beyond the hardscrabble life his parents had known.
After a few years of school, Johnson went to work as a laborer to help support his family. A good deal of his childhood, in fact, was spent working on boats and sculleries in Galveston.
By the age of 16, Johnson was on his own, travelling to New York and later Boston before returning to his hometown. Johnson’s first fight came around this time. His opponent was a fellow longshoreman, and while the purse wasn’t much—just $1.50—Johnson jumped at the chance and won the fight. Not long after he earned $25 for managing to stick out four rounds against professional boxer Bob Thompson.
Eager to get out of Galveston and try and forge a life around boxing, Johnson left his home again in 1899. By the early 1900s, the 6’2″ Johnson, who’d become known as the Galveston Giant, had made a name for himself in the black boxing circuit and had his eyes set on the world heavyweight title, which was held by white boxer Jim Jeffries. But Jeffries refused to fight him. He wasn’t alone. White boxers would not spar with their black counterparts.
But Johnson’s talents and bravado were too hard to ignore. Finally, on December 26, 1908, the flamboyant Johnson, who often taunted his opponents as he beat them soundly, got his chance for the title when champion Tommy Burns who had succeeded Jeffries, fought Johnson outside of Sydney, Australia. The fight, lasted until the 14th round, when police stepped in and ended it. Johnson was named the winner.
On July 4, 1910, he finally got his chance to fight Jim Jeffries. Dubbed the “Fight of the Century,” more than 22,000 eager fans turned out for the bout, held in Reno, Nevada. After 15 rounds, Johnson came away victorious, affirming his domain over boxing and further angering white boxing fans who hated seeing a black man sit atop the sport. For the fight, Johnson earned a purse of $117,000. It would be five years before he relinquished the heavyweight title, when Johnson fell to Jess Willard in a 26-round bout in Havana, Cuba. Johnson continued to fight for another 12 years, hanging up his gloves for good at the age of 50.
Jack Johnson died in an automobile accident in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1946.