Ken Burns Classroom

Jack Johnson

1878–1946

Jack Johnson in boxing trunks, 1915
Jack Johnson, 1915. Credit: The Library of Congress.

Jack Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas in 1878, the year that Reconstruction failed. His father, Henry, was a laborer and his mother, Tiny, a domestic. Johnson, according to his autobiography, learned to read and write, and apparently was always restless as a child. It was in the tough world of manual black labor that Johnson, being a big man for the times, at 6 feet and 200 pounds, learned to fight.

Tommy Burns and Jack Johnson fought on December 26, 1908—Boxing Day—in Sydney, Australia. Johnson easily won the match in 14 rounds and became the first black heavyweight champion. It was almost immediate that the cry went up from whites for a "great white hope" who could wrest the title away from Johnson.

Jeffries was coaxed out of retirement to fight Johnson, some arguing that since Jeffries never lost his title in the ring, he was, in essence, the real champion. That fight took place in Reno, Nevada on July 4, 1910. It was the most talked-about, most publicized sporting event in American history. Johnson once again won easily. Since Johnson could not be defeated in the ring, the battle moved to defeating Johnson in the area where he most offended and where he was most vulnerable—his sex life.

With public sentiment so strongly against Johnson, the government was encouraged to hunt for a witness against him for a Mann Act violation. They found one in Belle Schreiber, a white prostitute who had been Johnson’s girlfriend on and off for several years. The case was successfully prosecuted and Johnson was found guilty in 1913 of violating a decidedly bad law. Johnson jumped bail and fled to Europe. He was to live abroad until 1920, when he returned to serve his sentence.

While he was abroad, Johnson continued to fight. The belt had no value because he was a fugitive, and was unable to fight in the biggest market for fights—the United States. In addition, with the start of war in Europe, he had become superfluous., he lost the title in Havana, Cuba in April 1915 to a big, lumbering Kansan named Jess Willard, who knocked out Johnson in the 26th round of their fight.

After he served his time, Johnson did what many famous ex-athletes do: he tried to live off his name. He fought in exhibitions, told his life story in dime museums, appeared in a few movies in bit roles, and exchanged predictions about upcoming title bouts for meals from reporters. He took out a patent for a wrench in 1922 that apparently never caught on. (Taking out a patent is not an indication that one's invention is a success in the market.) He continued to marry white women, but since he was no longer heavyweight champion, no one cared. He occasionally performed as a musician. There was an aspect of the shabby about his final years, but Johnson was a man of dignity and even of cultural bearing. He was an intelligent man always a shrewd operator, looking for an angle. And he continued to drive fast, as he had when he was champion. He died in an automobile accident in 1946.

About The Authors

Dr. Gerard Early

WETA

© Copyright WETA. All Rights Reserved.