Jack Johnson: The first African American world heavyweight boxing champion

In 1908, Texan Jack Johnson (1878–1946) defeated Canadian Tommy Burns to become the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion. Admired for quick footwork and defensive acumen, the man known as the "Galveston Giant" retained the heavyweight title from 1908 to 1915. Johnson's success in the ring made him an international celebrity in his day. Sadly, today there are many people who haven't heard of him. Black History Month is a great opportunity to remember this iconic figure and his remarkable life.

A faded red ticket for a world championship boxing match. There are small pictures of the boxers faces and black text with various information on it.

Johnson's success in the ring made him an international celebrity and he was celebrated with ceremonies and parades in some black communities. Outspoken, independent, and conspicuous with his wealth, Johnson intentionally provoked racist whites as well as some African American intellectuals. During his reign, promoters actively sought a "Great White Hope" to defeat the flamboyant champion, and his victories were often marred by racial discord.

An old, color playing card in which a man identified as "Jack Johnson" appears to be winding up in a boxing ring against a blue background. He is stripped to his waist wearing white pants.
A playing card on which a man wearing boxing clubs in a fighting stance stands against a green background made to look like a large hall with many seated people. He is identified as Jack Johnson by text in the corner.

Most upsetting to the press and public opinion was the boxer's open challenge to society's disapproval of interracial dating and marriage, which was illegal in many states. Three of his marriages were to white women. Likely in retaliation for his brazenness, he was arrested twice for violation of the Mann Act: "transporting, in interstate or foreign commerce," a woman for "immoral purpose." He was found guilty in 1913 by an all-white jury, even though the woman in question was his wife at the time of conviction. After the verdict, Johnson fled to Europe, eventually returning to the United States to serve a one-year prison sentence in 1920.

Black and white photograph of a man in a light-colored suit and cap standing in front of a gleaming black car outside with palm trees in the background.

In his book Jack Johnson the Man, he described his life like this: "My life, almost from its very start, has been filled with tragedy and romance, failure and success, poverty and wealth, misery and happiness. All these conflicting conditions that have crowded in upon me and plunged me into struggles with warring forces have made me somewhat a unique character in the world of today and the story of my life I have led, may therefore not only contain some interest if told for its own sake, but may also shed some light on the life of our times."

Johnson died in a car accident in 1946. The headline of his June 15, 1946, obituary in the black-owned New York Amsterdam News was "They Hated Jack Johnson For He Feared No Human."

The cover to a book called "Jack Johnson The Man." It is a faded terracotta color with watermarks and other signs of age.

The book contains a foreword by J. B. Lewis, which addressed, in the language of the day, the way in which racism influenced attitudes toward the athlete: "When [Johnson] successfully fought his way to the world championship, instead of his achievement mitigating those [racist] prejudices and jealousies, they were intensified and more than that, there were many who called themselves honorable, charitable and sportsmanlike, who stubbornly refused to credit Jack with the same degree of consideration and respect that would have been given a white man, even though that white man did far worse things in the world of morals than were ever done by Jack."

Eric W. Jentsch is the deputy chair of the Division of Culture and the Arts.