He was once known as the most notorious African American man in the world, and he still is by some. Jack Johnson, known as the Galveston Giant, was the premier boxing legend during the early 1900s in a sport primarily dominated at the time by white males.
Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas in 1878, and was the third of nine children. Ironically, he was born from Tina “Tiny” Johnson, a former slave who worked as a dishwasher.
Johnson didn’t become a professional boxer in an ordinary fashion. He began boxing around the age of 16, and actually lost his fair share of matches early on in his career. After he won his first recreational fight for a minuscule $1.50, he started to garner attention after he lasted four rounds against professional boxer Bob Thompson.
Knowing his skill set was rapidly developing and his 6-foot-2 stature was an extremely intimidating presence, Johnson began to challenge other professional boxers around the country, but they would not fight him. A hungry Johnson eyed the world heavyweight title, which was held by Jim Jeffries, a white boxer, that did not want to fight him either. The heavyweight successor, Tommy Jones, later agreed to fight Johnson because the spectacle Johnson built was too massive to pass up. Johnson made significantly less than his opponent, who received $30,000 from promoters, but that did not matter.
“The fight, which novelist Jack London attended and wrote about for a New York newspaper, lasted until the 14th round, when police stepped in and ended it. Johnson was named the winner.
Johnson sat on top of the boxing world as the new heavyweight champion in front of 20,000 fans in Sydney, Australia. Fast forward two years and Johnson finally got his wish of fighting Jim Jeffries in what was dubbed “The Fight of the Century.” The charismatic Johnson came out on top of his bitter opponent, to the extreme disappointment and hatred of the white boxing fans seeing a Black man win on the sport’s biggest stage.
Johnson was as big as a star as any baseball or football player at the time. He drove fancy and expensive cars, and even dated white women, much to the dismay of racist whites. As his stardom grew, so did the target on his back. He was even arrested once in 1912 for violating the Mann Act, which prohibited a Black person from taking a white girlfriend or boyfriend across state lines.
After his untimely death in 1946, Johnson’s legacy would live on as a pioneer for African Americans in a predominantly white sport. Given the time period he succeeded in, his achievements should not be taken lightly. in 1990, his achievements and person would forever be immortalized, being inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.