March 31 is Jack Johnson Day in Texas.
Born in Galveston, a port city with the largest slave market west of New Orleans, Johnson’s parents were former slaves. At 13, Johnson worked on the Galveston docks. This is where he learned to fight. He then moved to Dallas and worked as a carriage painter. This is where he learned to box.
Galveston was one of Texas’ major cities until 1900 when a hurricane destroyed it while killing upwards of 12,000 people. That remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. According to Johnson, in the days after the disaster, when people stood atop their rooftops to escape drowning, “avaricious men” used their boats to rescue people but only if they paid a few dollars.
“When I encountered them,” Johnson said of the profiteers, “I either compelled them to go to the rescue of the victims, or brought my boxing proclivities into play and took possession of their rescue conveyances myself and piloted the threatened to safety.” Johnson also says during the Galveston Hurricane, he helped feed the hungry, care for the sick, and bury the dead.
Almost six months later, in Galveston, Texas Rangers arrested Jack Johnson for prize fighting. They also arrested his opponent, Joe Choynski. Released after 3 weeks, Johnson left Galveston.
In 1908 Johnson became first black heavyweight champion. Galveston officials planned a parade. They ultimately canceled after learning Johnson would attend with his white wife. Johnson’s multiple marriages to white women led to a prison sentence for violating the Mann Act. During the trial a group in Midland, Texas, sent a letter to the prosecuting attorney. They told him that if he killed Johnson, they’d contribute $100,000 for his defense.
After his conviction he lived in Europe and across Latin America. In 1920, while living in Mexico—during their revolution—Johnson turned himself over to U.S. authorities in San Diego county, across from Tijuana.
When Johnson discovered authorities planned to drive him through Texas on their way to Chicago, he pleaded that they drive around the state. He feared “being attacked by citizens of the State of Texas.”
In 1994, Texas governor Ann Richards proclaiming March 31st as Jack Johnson Day. It was his birthday. “It is important,” the governor wrote, “for all Texans to recognize and celebrate the special place Jack A. Johnson held in the sport of boxing and in the history of our state.”