Sunday, March 29, 2009

March 31: He Boxed and Lived On His Own Terms

Do you know who this is?
-He was born to former slaves in Texas.
-He was the background cause of race riots throughout the country in 1910.
-He enjoyed racing cars.

He was an African-American man who had succeeded in a white-dominated sport during a time when things like that were against the moral stance of white society. He became one of the first ‘modern celebrities’ in his lifestyle. He was the first African-American Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World.

Arthur John (Jack) Johnson was born on March 31, 1878, in Galveston, Texas, as the second of former slaves Henry and Tina ‘Tiny’ Johnson’s six children. Jack would quit school after the fifth grade to go to work. He eventually wound up on the Galveston shipping docks, building his muscles, toughness, rough-housing fighting, and determination to succeed.

Jack would take his rough and tumble experiences into boxing – first as a sparring partner, then to participate in “battle royal” fights at private clubs. This was a fight where a number of fighters were brought together to fight until only one remained standing. That winner won the where cash prizes that were offered.

He began boxing professionally in 1897, and in his first fight knocked out Jim Rocks. Boxing was illegal in Texas, and Jack was arrested in 1901. After his release from jail, Jack left the state.

By 1902, Jack had won at least 50 fights against both white and black opponents. On February 3, 1903, he defeated “Denver” Ed Martin for the World Colored Heavyweight Championship. He wanted to in the full title of Heavyweight Champion, but the current champion – James J. Jeffries – refused to face him. Jeffries would retire undefeated in 1905 – but would come out of retirement five years later to face Jack.

This refusal was a part of the social situation in the early 20th century. America held the heavyweight boxing championship in awe, and the white-dominated society felt that blacks were not worthy to compete for it. Jack, however, was persistent – fighting and defeating former champion Bob Fitzsimmons in July 1907 – and knocking him out in two rounds. Jack was a contender.

On December 26, 1908, the first white – black heavyweight boxing championship match was held in Sydney, Australia between Jack and Canadian heavyweight champion of the world, Tommy Burns. The fight only occurred because Jack had followed Burns around the world, challenging and mocking him – essentially forcing him into a fight. The match lasted 14 rounds, was dominated by Jack, and ended in a TKO in favor of Jack. The camera’s were stopped just before the end of the fight in order not to show Burns’ defeat.

The boxing world had a new Heavyweight Champion of the World – and it wasn’t happy about it. Immediately a search began for a “great white hope” to return the title to the ‘superior white race’. A number of fighters tried – and failed. The best was former heavyweight champions Jeffries – who would come out of retirement for the ‘fight of the century’, held before 22,000 spectators in Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910.

Jeffries was knocked to the mat twice during the match, and in the 15th round his team called it quits – supposedly to avoid a knock out of the former champion. As a result of the fight, many critics of Jack’s fighting ability were silenced; and African American exuberance spread throughout the country. Black poet William Waring Cuney captured the exuberant African American reaction in his poem, "My Lord, What a Morning":

O my Lord
What a morning,
O my Lord,
What a feeling,
When Jack
Turned Jim Jeffries'
Snow-white face
to the ceiling.
Another result was a spate of riots that occurred throughout the US as the white reacted in anger and violence to the news of the defeat of their great white hope – and the racial message it brought. The whites would try to subdue the celebrations being held by the blacks of the cities. Riots occurred in 25 states and 50 cities, resulting in the death of at least 23 blacks and 2 whites. Hundreds were injured. The Texas legislature banned films of Jack’s victories over fights for fear of more riots.

On April 15, 1915, Jack lost the title to Jess Willard in a bout in Havana, Cuba, before a crowd of 25,000. The fight lasted 26 rounds, resulting in a KO of Jack. It was one of three times he would be knocked out in the ring during his career.

As champion – and after – Jack would become a pioneer celebrity athlete: endorsing products, holding numerous radio and newspaper interviews, and indulging in expensive hobbies. Fast and expensive cars and clothing; jewelry and furs for the women in his life; and his marriage to white women challenged conventions regarding the social and economic "place" of African Americans in American society and outraged the moral stance of the white community. He married Brooklyn socialite Etta Duryea in 1910. She grew despondent because she was ostracized from society and committed suicide in 1911. He married his white secretary Lucille Cameron in December 1911. She would divorce him in 1924 for infidelity. In 1925 he married Irene Pineau, who would outlive him. He would have no children by any of his marriages.

In 1913 Jack was charged and convicted by an all-white jury with violating the Mann Act, which outlawed the transportation of women across state lines for purposes of prostitution. He was released on bond, pending appeal, and fled the country disguised as a member of a black baseball team - going first to Canada, then Europe, where he continued to box. After losing a title bout in Havana in 1915, he would ultimately return to the United States from Mexico in 1920 – turning himself in to authorities. He was imprisoned in the Federal prision at Leavenworth, Kansas for eight months – during which time he invented the Johnson Wrench.

He would box in exhibition matches after his release, but retired in 1928. He would stage exhibition matches again during World War II to raise money for the war effort.

Jack would die at the age of 68 in a car crash at Franklinton, North Carolina. His accident occurred after he angrily left a diner that refused to serve him because of his race. He was buried next to Etta Duryea Johnson at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. Later, Irene Pineau was buried next to him as well.
Jack would be inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954. The film of the 1910 Johnson-Jeffries fight was deemed as ‘historically significant’ in 2005, and put in the National Film Registry. Finally, sixty-two years after his death, the US Congress passes a resolution in September 2008 recommending that the President grant a pardon for Jack’s 1913 conviction, acknowledging the racist overtones of the conviction as well as recognizing his contributions to boxing.


Ward, Geoffrey C: Unforgivable Blackness : The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson


01. Boxing pose: Library of Congress, Digital ID USZ62-29331
02. Boxing pose, 1907: Library of Congress, Digital ID: ichicdn s006116
02. Sydney Stadium during Johnson-Burns match, 1908: Wikipedia
03. Johnson-Jeffries Fight, 1910: Wikipedia
04. Joliet Courthouse Steps, 1925: Library of Congress, Digital ID: ichicdn s065687b

1 comment:

  1. Wondering what the purses were in his early days and when he did finally get to fight against white fighters if he got less. When I was a teenager boxing was popular and I knew all the heavyweights, Ali, Frazier etc.. Not sure if its just me or boxing in general but I have no idea who the champ is now. Has boxing fallen out of favour or am I just not paying attention to it?