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Texas Originals

Jack Johnson: First African-American To Win Heavyweight Boxing Title

Johnson was a pioneer in sports and spent his adult life fighting racism in and out of the boxing ring.



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Portrait of Jack Johnson
Arthur John "Jack" Johnson

March 31, 1878–June 10, 1946


Jack Johnson was born in Galveston in 1878. He went on to become the greatest boxer in the world and one of America’s most famous celebrities. Johnson won the World Colored Heavyweight Championship in 1903, but couldn't claim the overall title because white fighters refused to face him in the ring.

Original caption: Action shot of Jack Johnson fighting Jim Jeffries at Reno in 1910. Jeffries was beaten over 15 rounds. 1919 Reno, Nevada, USA

That changed in 1908 when Johnson beat Tommy Burns to become the first African-American World Heavyweight Champion. He defended his title against all-comers including retired champ James Jeffries. Jeffries announced his sole purpose for coming out of retirement was "proving a white man is better than a Negro." ...unquote... Johnson knocked Jeffries down twice before Jeffries gave up in the fifteenth round.

The New York Times hoped Johnson's win would "stimulate respect for equality and fairness." To the contrary, unrest and violence followed. Johnson's taste for fast cars and high living fueled the outrage.

In 1913, his relationships with white women led to a trumped-up charge of "transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes." Johnson's only real crime was his success yet he spent a year in Leavenworth prison.

Despite declining skills, Johnson continued boxing into his 50s. In 1946, at the age of 68, Johnson died in a car wreck.

In 2002, the city of Galveston renamed 41st Street Jack Johnson Boulevard in honor of its most famous native son.


Selected Bibliography

Boxing Hall of Fame Enshrinees: Jack Johnson.

Burns, Ken. “Unforgivable Blackness: About the Film.” Review of Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.

Gilmore, Al-Tony. Bad Nigger! The National Impact of Jack Johnson. Kennikat: 1975.

“Johnson, Jack.” Handbook of Texas Online.

Johnson, Jack. My Life and Battles. Translated and edited by Christopher Rivers. Praeger, 2007.

Roberts, Randy. Papa Jack: Jack Johnson And The Era Of White Hopes. New York: The Free Press, 1983.

Ward, Geoffrey. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. Knopf, 2004.

This episode first aired February 25th, 2012.