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Jack Johnson's Fight for His Title and His Freedom

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Jack Johnson fights Tommy Burns for the Heavy Weight Championship Title I

Jack Johnson fights Tommy Burns for the Heavy Weight Championship Title I

Jack Johnson the Boxer

On May 24, 2018, President Donald Trump officially pardoned John Johnson, the former heavyweight boxing champion. Who was Jack Johnson and what crime did he commit that the president granted him a pardon for years after Johnson’s death?

Johnson's Early Years

John Arthur (Jack) Johnson was born on March 31,1878, in Galveston, Texas, not many years after the Civil War had freed the slaves in the South. Johnson’s parents, Henry and Tina Johnson, were former slaves. Jack Johnson was one of Henry and Tina’s several children and Jack did not receive much of a formal education. He was forced at a young age to drop out of school to take employment on the docks to help support his family. But Johnson was a tall, large black man who would not settle for just being a common dock worker. Instead, he set his sights on becoming the first African American heavyweight boxing champion.

Jack Johnson's List of Major Fights

Jack Johnson (nicknamed the Galveston Giant) formally began his boxing career on Nov 1st, 1898. He had an amazing list of hard-won fights.

  • Nov 1, 1898: Johnson won a fight against Charley Brooks in Galveston, Texas.
  • May 8, 1899: Johnson won against John Hayes in Chicago. The following year, these two matched up again in a tie.
  • Feb 25, 1901: Johnson fought Joe Choynski and lost.
  • 1903: By this time, Johnson had won 50 fights. Johnson fought Denver Martin and won. This fight earned Johnson the World Colored Heavyweight Championship.
  • Dec 1926: Johnson fought Tommy Burns and became the first African American to hold the Heavyweight Boxing Championship title.
  • July 4, 1910: Johnson fought James Jefferies in Reno, Nevada, a fight that was dubbed the fight of the century. Johnson won, which led to race riots.

Racial Tensions Arise

By this time, Johnson had made a name for himself. He was a black man in an era of Jim Crow laws and racial tensions. The Civil War wasn’t that long ago and Johnson soon found himself facing legal problems due to the fact that he was a colored man who had beaten James Jefferies, a white man. There was much celebrating the fact that Johnson had won against a white man and this did not sit well with the white boxing world.

Johnson also liked white women; he had been married to two white women and was involved with white prostitutes. This did not go very well with whites during the time of Jim Crow laws.

Boxing Champion and his wealthy wife pose for the cameras.

Boxing Champion and his wealthy wife pose for the cameras.

Johnson's White Wives

Johnson’s first wife was Etta Terry Duryea. She was a wealthy white socialist from Brooklyn and their marriage proved to be a disaster. They were married from January 1911 until September 1912- not even a full year- at the time she committed suicide.

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Johnson then met Lucille Cameron, another young, 19-year-old white girl from Minneapolis. Lucille’s mother was outraged that her daughter was dating a black man. In Oct 1912, she accused Johnson of kidnapping her daughter. The case went to trial but Lucille stood up for Johnson and refused to say that she had been kidnapped, so the charges were dismissed. Lucille and Johnson were then married on Dec 4th 1912 and later divorced in 1924.

The Mann Act 1910

The Department of Justice failed to convict Johnson in the Lucille Cameron case, but they quickly found another woman who was willing to testify that Johnson had taken her over state lines several times. This woman was Belle Schreiber, another white woman he met in May 1913. She was a prostitute in a house that refused black men. However, Johnson persuaded Belle to travel with him several times, crossing the state lines. This violated the 1910 Mann Act, which stated that it was a federal offense to travel over a state line with a woman or young girl with the intention of prostitution or any immoral act. Belle was persuaded to testify against Johnson and he was convicted of violating the Mann Act and sentenced to one year in prison.

Evading the Law

Johnson was let out on bail as he appealed the court’s decision, but he quickly decided that he was going to disappear. He eluded the police and headed for Canada, where he joined up with his wife Lucille. From Canada, they headed to France where Johnson managed to book some fights. However, World War I was about to begin and Johnson and Lucille headed south to South America.

Jack Johnson grave in Chicago

Jack Johnson grave in Chicago

Jack Johnson Loses His Heavyweight Title

In 1914, another fight was scheduled for the world boxing title. Johnson would face Jess Willard in the ring in Havana. Willard was younger and well trained for the fight, but Johnson was favored to win. However, Willard managed to wear out Johnson and won the fight, thus taking the Heavyweight Boxing title from Johnson. It would be years before the boxing world would let another black man fight for any boxing titles.

After losing to Willard, Johnson returned to the USA in 1920 and turned himself in to law enforcement to serve out a 10-month prison sentence. After his release, he returned to boxing and continued fighting until he was 50 years old. In 1920, Johnson and Lucille were divorced and he later married Irene Pineau, to whom he remained married until his death in a car accident in 1946 in North Carolina.

Jack Johnson the Legend

Jack Johnson was a boxing legend. He fought hard, loved white women, and at times lived a life of luxury. He paved the way for other great African American boxers who would become world boxing champions. He was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993.

© 2019 L.M. Hosler


L.M. Hosler (author) on August 29, 2019:

Ms Dora Thanks for commenting. Johnson certainly led the way for other great African American champions. I believe Johnson was quite a colorful character.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on August 29, 2019:

What an interesting article! Thanks for the historical account of a story we all need to hear.Thanks to the senator who led the struggle on Jack Johnson's behalf and to the president for his "righteous act" of pardon.

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