John Arthur (Jack) Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas on March 31, 1878. Jack, who was often referred to as the Galveston Giant, was the first African American heavyweight boxer of the world. He won the title in 1908 at the beginning of the Jim Crow era and held the title until 1915; however, his accomplishments in the boxing ring were often overshadowed by the tragedies of his personal life. His life was amazing and unusual because of his ability to be able to fluidly move between the two worlds of being a boxer celebrity and being a black man during a time of racial hatred after the Reconstruction period.
Jack’s pursuit of the heavyweight champion title was a difficult one in the early nineteen hundreds. There were separate leagues for most sports competitions. He was able to finally get a chance at the title after Jim F. Jeffries retired and the new champion, Tommy Burns agreed to a fight in Sidney Australia. Johnson defeated Burns and held the title for several years but was challenged by Jeffries who came out of retirement to be “the Great White Hope” to win back the title and to supposedly demonstrate the boxing superiority of the white man. The fight, which was nicknamed the “Fight of the Century,” was so notorious that author Jack London wrote for the press, “Jeffries would surely win' because the white man 'has 30 centuries of traditions behind him - all the supreme efforts, the inventions and the conquests, and, whether he knows it or not, Bunker Hill and Thermopylae and Hastings and Agincourt.” The mainstream press was also very hostile towards blacks before the fight. The New York Times ran an article that stated “If the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors.” Jeffries was soundly defeated and Johnson’s victory sparked waves of racial violence across the country in New York, Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Omaha, Columbus, St. Louis, and Wilmington, and Delaware.
Johnson’s celebrity status allowed him access to parts of society that African Americans were not privy to at the height of the Jim Crow era. He was able to parlay his winnings and social status into business ventures such as a black and tan night club in Chicago that he named Cafe de Champion. A black and tan night club was a desegregated establishment when desegregation was not tolerated. The pressure he received from locals and the police ultimately led to its closing, costing Johnson a fortune. Johnson not only faced discrimination in the ring and his financial dealings but also in his personal life.
Johnson’s relationships with women, especially white women, were highly controversial for the times. Once again, his celebrity status and outgoing nature allowed him access to social circles most African American men would have never considered. Dating or marrying a white woman could have easily gotten him killed in some parts of the country. This did not stop Jack from marrying three white women during his lifetime. He contended that it was his bad experiences with black women in his past that led him to only have relationships with white women.
His first documented marriage was to Etta Terry Duryea. Their troubled marriage lasted only one year with Etta suffering from depression, abuse, and infidelity. Her depression continued to worsen until she finally committed suicide from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. It has been assumed that her depression worsened because of the stress of their interracial relationship. His second marriage was to Lucille Cameron, an 18-year-old prostitute he met at his nightclub. They stayed married for twelve years but she filed for divorce because of his infidelity. It is important to note that his relationships with prostitutes will become a major issue later in his life when the government tries to accuse him of wrongdoing. His last wife was Irene Pineau. Their relationship proved to be the longest of all his wives, lasting for the last twenty-one years of his life. She stood by him and had only good things to say about Jack after his death. She was asked what she loved most about him, and she stated, “I loved him because of his courage. He faced the world unafraid. There wasn’t anybody or anything he feared.”
It was during his marriage to Lucille that Jack faced one of the most desperate times of his life. In 1912 he was arrested for his violation of the Mann Act for transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes. Most agree today that the government was concerned about the popularity Johnson was gaining across the country, especially in the black community and his arrest was based on trumped-up charges to squash the hopes of African Americans. He was convicted by an all-white jury and was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. He skipped bail and fled the country and lived in exile in Europe for the next seven years. He finally came back to the U.S. and served his sentence in Leavenworth but ultimately at the cost of his boxing career.
There were many efforts over the years to have Johnson pardoned by several presidents going back to Ronald Reagan. All efforts were stymied by congress or the executive office. When Barack Obama became president, celebrities and athletes tried once again to push for a pardon. Mike Tyson started a Change.org petition campaign effort. There was no denying that the racial discrimination involved in Johnson’s arrest should have been forgiven. His history of abusing women would not allow them to issue the pardon. However, during the Donald Trump administration, this changed. Actor Sylvester Stallone approached Trump with the request because he was considering producing a movie about Jack’s life and convinced Trump to issue the pardon.
Jack Johnson is buried in Chicago with his first wife, but a memorial exists in Galveston, Texas describing his important role in Texas and boxing history. His grave was initially unmarked but after Ken Burns released a movie about his life in 2005 a new marker was placed with the words “First black heavyweight champion of the world” on it. On the back of the stone is Jack’s signature.