Texas: heavyweight champ Jack Johnson was arrested for boxing in
1903 in Galveston.
Johnson, who was born in Galveston
and honed his physical skills by lifting cotton
bales as a youngster in the Newton County river port of Belgrade,
became the heavyweight title in 1910 when he defeated Jim Jeffries.
But eight years earlier, Johnson was thrown in jail in Galveston
for violating a state law banning boxing.
Johnson was born of poor black parents in 1878, the second of six
children of former slave Henry Johnson and his wife Tiny.
He kicked around Texas picking
up odd jobs as a dockworker, porter, and barberıs helper. He began
his boxing career as a sparring partner and participated in "battles
royal" where black youths fought each other and white spectators
threw money to the winner.
Johnson left Galveston
shortly after his 1901 arrest and began wandering the U.S., fighting
and gaining admiration for his toughness.
1903, he won the Negro heavyweight championship. Jeffries, the reigning
white heavyweight champion, refused to cross the color line and
meet Johnson in the ring.
When Johnson defeated Tommy Burns in Australia to technically win
the heavyweight title, he wasnıt officially recognized until he
defeated Jeffries in Las Vegas in 1910.
Jeffries was the first in a series of recruited "white hopes"
to fight Johnson.
In 1913 Johnson fled the U.S. after 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 prison
term, Johnson toured Europe, Canada and Mexico.
He lost his championship to white challenger Jess Willard in Cuba
Johnson returned to the U.S. in 1920, was jailed in Leavenworth,
and became the prison's athletic director. After his release, he
returned to boxing, but his professional career was over. For most
of his life, Johnson was a non-conformist, turning to fast cars,
white women, and expensive jewels. He often defied a hostile press
which criticized his "golden smile and white wives."
Following three marriages, Johnson died in a North Carolina automobile
accident in 1946. While Johnson was one of Galveston's
most famous athletes, the Island City has been reluctant to honor
In the 1980s an artist erected a black-metal, modernistic sculpture
in a city park to honor Johnson, but the sculpture became the target
of racist attacks and salt air, and was removed.
East Texas February
27, 2012 Column
A weekly column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers