Boxing and History

Jack Johnson and Texas

Photo from Galveston’s Rosenberg Library.

If you are in Texas, Sunday is officially Jack Johnson Day.

Johnson was born in Galveston which, as a port city, had 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 the city and killed upwards of 12,000 people—it 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 not before charging them a few dollars.

“When I encountered them,” Johnson said, “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.

Joe Choynski and Jack Johnson in jail. Photo from Galveston’s Rosenberg Library.

In 1908 Johnson became first black heavyweight champion. Galveston officials planned a parade that they ultimately canceled after learning Johnson would attend with his white wife. Johnson’s multiple marriages to white women led to him being sentenced to prison 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 to Chicago, through Texas, he pleaded that they drive around the state. He feared “being attacked by citizens of the State of Texas at some point through which they might travel.”

This year, on Sunday, marks the 25th anniversary of then-Texas governor, Ann Richards, proclaiming March 31st as Jack Johnson Day. “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.”

Photo from SMU’s DeGolyer Library.