Johnson, Jack (1878–1946)

By: James W. Byrd

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: November 11, 2020

Jack Johnson (his real name was Arthur John, and he was also known as Lil' Arthur), the first black to win the world heavyweight boxing championship, was born in Galveston on March 31, 1878, of poor parents. He was the second of six children of Henry (a former slave) and Tiny Johnson. He left school in the fifth grade. Young Johnson began traveling in South Texas, picking up odd jobs as a porter, barber's helper, dockworker, and general laborer. He began his fighting career as a sparring partner and participated in so-called battles royal, where black youths fought each other and White spectators threw money to the winner. He started fighting in private clubs in the Galveston area, and became a professional prizefighter in 1897. The Galveston hurricane of 1900 destroyed his family's home, and the next year he was jailed for boxing—at that time it was illegal in Texas. He subsequently left Galveston and did not return. Johnson began wandering the country, fighting and gaining increasing recognition. In 1903 he won the Negro heavyweight championship. Jim Jeffries, the reigning White heavyweight champion, refused to cross the color line and fight him. Johnson had to wait until 1908, when he defeated Tommy Burns in Australia, to technically win the world heavyweight boxing championship; even then he was not officially recognized as the champion. The actual heavyweight championship title was bestowed on him on July 4, 1910, in Reno, Nevada, when he defeated Jim Jeffries, who had stepped out of retirement to become the first in a series of recruited "White hopes." Race riots erupted after the match. After his victory, Johnson continued to fight and also appeared in several vaudeville skits. In 1913 he fled a contrived conviction for a violation of the Mann Act, which forbade the transportation of White women interstate for the purpose of prostitution. Facing a year in prison and a $1,000 fine if he remained in the United States, Johnson toured Europe, Mexico, and Canada and hoped for a pardon. He lost his championship to White Jess Willard in Cuba in 1915. On July 20, 1920, he returned to the United States and was arrested. He was jailed in Leavenworth Prison, where he was appointed the athletic director of the penitentiary. After his release, he returned to boxing, but his professional career was over. By 1928 he was only taking part in exhibition fights; he managed, refereed, and occasionally trained boxers. He also gave speeches, selling war bonds during World War II. Johnson was a nonconformist; as his career took off he turned to White women, fast cars, and expensive jewels, defying an antagonistic press and public. Known "for his arrogance, his golden smile, and his White wives," Johnson married Etta Terry Duryea in 1911. She committed suicide in 1912, and he married Lucille Cameron in 1913. They were divorced in 1924, and he married Irene Marie Pineau in 1925. He did not have any children. Johnson died in an automobile crash on June 10, 1946, near Raleigh, North Carolina. President Donald Trump issued a posthumous pardon for Johnson's 1913 conviction on May 24, 2018. See also SPORTS.

Finnis Farr, Black Champion: The Life and Times of Jack Johnson (New York: Scribner, 1964). Jack Johnson, Jack Johnson in the Ring and Out (Chicago: National Sports Publishing Company, 1927). Randy Roberts, Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes (New York: Free Press, 1983).

  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Sports and Recreation
  • Sports (Boxing and Wrestling)
Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

James W. Byrd, “Johnson, Jack,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 28, 2022,

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November 11, 2020

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