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    CENTENNIAL OF AN IRONY
    Heavyweight Champ
    Jack Johnson

    by Bob Bowman
    Bob Bowman

    In 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.

    In 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 in 1915.

    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 his life.

    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.


    © Bob Bowman February 27, 2012 Column
    More Bob Bowman's East Texas >
    A weekly column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers
    More People |
    East Texas Towns | Columns

    Related Story:
    My Afternoon with Jack Johnson
    by Ed "Brock" Brockman

    (Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of more than 50 books about East Texas history and folklore. He can be reached at bob-bowman.com)

    More Columns by Bob Bowman
    Bob Bowman's East Texas >
    "All Things Historical" archive >

    Related Topics:

    East Texas
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    Texas

    The Forgotten Towns of East Texas, Vol. I
    By Bob and Doris Bowman
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