Arthur John (Jack) Johnson (1878 -1946) was the first black man to win the heavyweight boxing championship of the world.
Born in Galveston on March 31, 1878, he was the second of six children of Henry and Tiny Johnson. Henry was a former slave and his family was poor. After leaving school in the fifth grade, Johnson worked odd jobs around South Texas. He started boxing as a sparring partner and fought in the “battles royal,” matches in which young blacks entertained white spectators who threw money to the winner.
Johnson turned professional in 1897 following a period with private clubs in Galveston. His family’s home was destroyed by the great hurricane of 1900. A year later he was arrested and jailed because boxing was a criminal profession in Texas. He soon left Galveston for good.
Johnson first became the heavyweight champion of Negro boxing. Jim Jeffries, the white champ at the time, refused to fight Johnson because he was black. Then, in 1908, Johnson knocked out Tommy Burns in Australia to become world champion, although he was not officially given the title until 1910 when he finally fought and beat Jeffries in Reno. Jeffries had come out of retirement to become the first of many so-called “great white hopes.”
Race rioting was sparked after the Johnson-Jeffries fight. The Texas Legislature banned films of his victories over whites for fear of more riots. In 1913, Johnson fled because of trumped up charges of violating the Mann Act’s stipulations against transporting white women across state lines for prostitution.
During his exile from the U.S., Johnson lost his championship to a white man, Jess Willard, in Cuba in 1915. 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 to white women, Johnson never had children. He died in a car crash June 10, 1946, near Raleigh, North Carolina.