Arthur John Johnson, (March 31, 1878 – June 10, 1946), was born in Galveston, Texas, in 1878. In 1908 he became the first African-American to win the world heavyweight crown when he knocked out the reigning champ, Tommy Burns. The fast living Johnson held on to the title until 1915 and continued to box until he was 50. He died in an automobile accident in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1946.
Better known as Jack Johnson and nicknamed the “Galveston Giant”, he was an American boxer and arguably the best heavyweight of his generation. He was the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World (1908-1915). In a documentary about his life, Ken Burns notes: “For more than thirteen years, Jack Johnson was the most famous, and the most notorious African-American on Earth”.
Boxer Jack Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas, in 1878. In 1908 he became the first African-American to win the world heavyweight crown when he knocked out the reigning champ, Tommy Burns. The fast living Johnson held on to the title until 1915 and continued to box until he was 50. He died in an automobile accident in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1946.
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 fought him outside of Sydney, Australia.
Jeffries was humbled by the loss and what he’d seen of his opponent. “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best,” Jeffries said. “I couldn’t have hit him. No, I couldn’t have reached him in 1,000 years.”
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.
He dated white women, drove lavish cars and spent money freely. But trouble was always lurking. In 1912, he was convicted of violating the Mann Act for bringing his white girlfriend across state lines before their marriage. Sentenced to prison, he fled to Europe, remaining there as a fugitive for seven years. He returned to the United States in 1920 and ultimately served out his sentence.
His life came to an unfortunate end on June 10, 1946 when he died in an automobile accident in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Since his death, Johnson’s life and career have undergone a major rehabilitation. His alleged crimes are now seen as the result of racial bias in law enforcement. In 1990 he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame and his life was the subject of the acclaimed Ken Burns’ documentary Unforgivable Blackness.