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JACK ARTHUR JOHNSON

American Boxer (1878-1946)

Jack Johnson became the world's first African-American heavy weight champion in 1908 in a bout with Tommy Burns.  He held the title for 7 years.  Born in Galveston, Texas, one of six children, Jack Johnson dropped out of school after fifth grade and began to do odd jobs around town.  He began training to box after beating up a local bully and by 1897 had become a professional boxer.  Jack Johnson trained with people like Joe "the Barbados Demon" Walcott and Joe Choyinski.  From 1902-1907he won over 50 matches, soon of them against other African0American boxers such as Joe Jeannette, Sam Langford and Sam McVey, Jack Johnson's career was legendary. 

In 47 years of fighting, he was only knocked out three times, buy his life was troubled.  There was a campaign of hatred and bigotry waged against him by whites who wished to regain the heavyweight title and who also resented his interracial relationships with women.  He fought Bob Fitzsimmons, the ex-heavyweight champion in 1906 and knocked him out.  But the boxers who succeeded Fitzsimmons refused to fight Johnson because of his color.  Instead, another white boxer, Tommy Burns, fought Marvin Hart and won, Burns was then awarded the heavyweight title.  He also refused to fight Johnson, but after persuasion from those around him, he finally agreed to a fight on Christmas Day in 1908, Jack Johnson beat Tommy Burns easily while dancing around the ring taunting him.  He became a hero to blacks in America.  

Even after the victory, Jack Johnson was not fully accepted as champion and proponents of white supremacy searched  diligently for what they termed a "great white hope": to take the title away from him.  They resorted to ex-heavyweight champion James Jeffries to fight Hognson, Jeffries was defeated in the 15th round in a match surrounded by severe racial tension, in Reno, Nevada, in 1910.  Race rioting was sparked after the fight.  The Texas Legislature banned films of his white women across state lines for prostitution.  During his exile from the U.S., Johnson lost his title to Jess Willard under questionable circumstances. 

The fight was held in Cuba and it was rumored that Johnson allowed himself to be knocked out in the 16th round.   His marriages to white women, against the law at the time, and his flamboyant lifestyle had brought him a great deal of difficulty.  He is said to have intentionally lost the fight in order to avoid further trouble with the authorities.  He returned to the U.S. on July 20, 1920 and was arrested.  Sentenced to Leavenworth in Kansas, Johnson was appointed athletic director of the prison.  Upon his release, he returned to boxing, but only participated in exhibition fights after 1928.  Although married three times, Johnson never had children.  He died in a car crash June 10,1946, near Raleigh, North Carolina.

Revised: July 18, 2013.