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The Story of Jack Johnson - The Galveston Giant
On May 24, 2018, President Donald Trump formally pardoned the former US boxer Jack Johnson. The story of the Galveston Giant was one of highs and lows. At its zenith, Johnson became the first African American World Heavyweight Champion. At its nadir, Johnson found himself imprisoned, a victim of the era of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation. But who was he?
First Published in the June 2013 and July 2013 issues of The American Magazine (by Sabrina Sully)
Part One: The Rise of the Galveston Giant
Jack Johnson, the son of freed slaves, was cocky and confident, a lover of fast cars and faster women. A world-class boxer, there is no doubt that a racially motivated conviction in 1913 ruined his career. 100 years later, on April 17, 2013, the Senate voted to urge President Obama to pardon Jack Johnson. We look at his life.
Johnson was born John Arthur Johnson on March 31, 1878, in Galveston, Texas, to slaves freed during the Civil War. Despite being poor, from childhood he was confident and driven. At 12, determined to leave Galveston for New York City, he was discovered, beaten and thrown off the freight train he jumped. Huckleberry Finn-like, he jumped a boat headed for Key West and worked as a fisherman before working his passage as a cook on a freighter to New York. He returned home via Boston where he worked in a stable, becoming a longshoreman back in Galveston at aged 13.
Most of the dockworkers fought, and it could earn extra money. After he beat the ‘toughest man in Galveston’, Johnston’s fighting reputation was established, as was his first nickname ‘Li’l Arthur’. He turned pro on November 1, 1897, winning the Texas State Middleweight title.
In early 1901 Johnson fought Joe Choynski, an experienced but aging heavyweight, in Galveston. Choynski knocked Johnson out, but they were both arrested, prizefighting being illegal there at the time. Bail was set at an unaffordable $5,000 each, so the sheriff let both fighters to go home at night so long as they returned to spar in the jail cell. Large crowds gathered to watch the sessions. Choynski saw natural talent and determination in Johnson and taught him the nuances of defense, telling him “A man who can move like you should never have to take a punch”. After 23 days in jail, bail was reduced to an affordable level and a grand jury refused to indict either man. The two would remain friends, and Johnson later claimed that his success in boxing came from the coaching he received during that jail time.
At 6’2”, with a reach of 74”, Jack was making a name for himself on the black boxing circuit. In 1903, now nicknamed ‘The Galveston Giant’, he took the unofficial World Colored Heavyweight Championship, and by the end of 1906 had fought in 56 official fights, lost only two, and won the World Light Heavyweight Championship. His boxing style was distinctive, with a more patient approach than was customary, slowly building up over the rounds. He wanted to try for the World Heavyweight Title, held by white boxer Jim Jeffries. Jeffries refused to fight him - this was the Jim Crow era of segregation - and retired undefeated in 1904.
Johnson went to Australia to goad Tommy Burns, the new champion, into fighting him. Finally in 1908 Burns was seduced with a huge $30,000 purse to fight Johnson in Sydney. Declared the winner of the World Heavyweight Championship, he was persona non grata in Australia, and as he found on his return, in America too. Even fellow blacks disapproved, as his behaviour both in and out of the ring had raised racial tension.
A public outcry arose for a “great white hope” to defeat Johnson, and reclaim the title for white America. Many whites believed that Jeffries, despite a five year retirement, was the true world champion as he retired undefeated, and would easily beat the upstart Johnson. Racial tension rose further. The fight was the most anticipated, controversial, and talked-about sporting event in a generation.
On Independence Day, 1910, in Reno, Johnson dominated the ex-champion nearly as one-sidedly as he had Burns, and was declared the winner in the 15th. Jeffries was humbled. “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best,” he said. “I couldn’t have hit him. No, I couldn’t have reached him in 1,000 years.
A feature-length documentary of the fight was made, called The Fight of the Century. It was distributed internationally and although extremely popular, it was banned in many US states and cities as well as parts of the British Empire, for fear it would encourage non-white people to rebel against white authority. In 1912 Congress even passed an act forbidding the interstate transfer of all boxing films, which wasn’t repealed until 1940.
The bout earned Johnson $121,000 but many whites felt humiliated, while blacks celebrated what they saw as a racial victory. In more than 50 US cities police and angry white citizens tried to break up these celebrations, leaving more than a dozen men dead, and hundreds injured in what were branded ‘race riots’.
Winning the most coveted sports title in the early 1900s made Johnson an international celebrity sportsman in the modern sense, earning money through endorsements and public appearances as well as his sport. Visiting England in June 1911 in the midst of George V’s Coronation (Queen Elizabeth II’s grandfather) he was contracted to fight “Bombardier Billy” Wells, the British boxing champ, at Earls Court in the Fall. Johnson thought England a bastion of civilization that would welcome him, but the British clergy and newspapers led a campaign to have the prizefight stopped, the objections being inter-racial fighting and (how British!) fighting for money rather than fun or honor. Home Secretary Winston Churchill bowed to public pressure when he declared the Johnson-Wells fight illegal and “not in the best interests of the nation or empire.” Possibly they couldn’t risk a black man beating an English soldier in the heart of the British Empire. An angry Johnson spoke out and said that the British were hypocrites, no better than Americans.
A lot of people were out to get him. Chicago prosecutors sought to bring criminal charges against Johnson for his sexual relationships with white women. Johnson had been married to a black woman, but their marriage broke up, sending Johnson into a state of depression and, as he said in his autobiography, “led me to forswear colored women and to determine that my lot henceforth would be cast only with white women.” These white women were flaunted on his arm around the country. Three in particular, a Brooklyn socialite named Etta Duryea (the divorced wife of Charles Duryea, the first American gasoline-powered car manufacturer, whom he met at a car race) and two prostitutes, Hattie McClay and Belle Schreiber, were all referred to as ‘Mrs Jack Johnson’ by the champion in public, and sometimes he maintained simultaneous relationships with them. Etta was by far the most beautiful, educated and refined of the three, and the Heavyweight World Champion married her in 1911.
Part Two: The Fall of the Galveston Giant
“...we should take this opportunity to allow future generations to grasp fully what Jack Johnson accomplished against great odds and appreciate his contributions to society unencumbered by the taint of his criminal conviction. We know that we cannot possibly right the wrong that was done to Jack Johnson, but we can take this small step toward acknowledging his mistreatment and removing the cloud that casts a shadow on his legacy.” – Senator John McCain on the centenary of Jack Johnson’s trial. A Senate call for his pardon was made in the summer of 2013 to President Obama.
Johnson was good-looking, dressed extravagantly in tailored suits, bought his women furs and diamonds, and chauffeured them around in the most expensive cars. One of them was Brooklyn socialite Etta Duryea, the divorced wife of Charles Duryea, the first American manufacturer of gasoline-powered cars. By far the most beautiful, educated and refined of his women, she married the Heavyweight World Champion in 1911. An incensed Georgia Congressman tried to get a constitutional amendment banning racial intermarriage passed.
Etta’s family ostracized her, as did most white people and her husband’s black employees at the Café de Champion, his Chicago nightclub where she lived. Depressive by nature, this made her ill – compounded by Johnson’s continuous infidelities – and she committed suicide just over a year later. The news was vindication for the vast majority of Americans who believed miscegenation was wrong.
Any sympathy for Johnson after Etta’s death evaporated in a couple of weeks when he was seen around Chicago with an 18 year old white prostitute, Lucille Cameron. Chicago was outraged, and the authorities went all out ‘to get him’. First Lucille’s mother claimed Johnson held her daughter against her will. Then Chicago authorities shut down his popular club by rescinding its liquor license, citing Johnson’s ‘lowly moral character’. The abduction charge was dropped but he was again arrested in October 1912 for violating the Mann Act (or White-Slave Traffic Act) with Lucille. The act prohibited white slavery and the interstate transport of females for “immoral purposes” but its vague immorality definition was used to criminalize forms of consensual sexual behavior. The case fell apart when she refused to testify.
Less than a month later he was similarly charged, this time centered on him sending $75 to his former lover, Belle Schreiber, who traveled from Pittsburgh to Chicago and had consensual sex with him in a hotel room. Schreiber used the $75 to buy train tickets for herself, her pregnant sister and her mother. When a Madam in Pittsburgh threw Schreiber out on the streets after it was revealed she had a past relationship with Johnson, she asked him for money which she used to establish a Chicago brothel. This resulted in Johnson’s eleven count indictment.
Johnson married Lucille Cameron in December 1912, less than three months after Etta’s death; two Southern ministers recommended that Johnson be lynched rather than prosecuted. At the trial he admitted giving Belle the $75, but denied knowing it had been used to establish a brothel. The court dismissed four counts, but in June 1913 an all-white jury found him guilty on the remaining indictments. Sentenced to a year and a day in prison, Johnson fled the country with Lucille, possibly thinking his life was in danger. His appeal went forward despite his absence, finding no evidence that he aided and abetted Belle’s profession as a prostitute, but upheld that he paid her to cross state lines for the purpose of sex: ‘the transportation of a white woman across state lines for immoral purposes’.
From Canada they journeyed to France, and then in August 1913 to England for some exhibition fights at theaters. They were canceled when the Variety Artists’ Federation, who saw him as an escaped convict who’d already served time in prison and no better than a white slaver, threatened participating theaters with their licenses. He still appeared, but in the auditorium. He put on boxing exhibitions, but wrenched his back in a car accident with a London taxi. He returned to France, where there was no legal segregation of races and where Johnson quickly became the darling of Parisian fight fans and the artistic avant-garde.
He set up fights and conducted personal appearances to establish his celebrity in Europe, earn money and irritate America. In November 1913, the International Boxing Union declared the World Heavyweight Title held by Jack Johnson to be vacant. Johnson fought Jim Johnson (no relation) for the Heavyweight Title in Paris in December 1913 and won, but fractured his arm in a fight that was more like an exhibition match. It was notable as the first time in history that two blacks had fought for the World Heavyweight Title.
His status as a fugitive made him much less marketable as a boxer, and on January 7, 1914, Sporting Life published Johnson’s letter offering to fight anyone in the world for £6,000 and the championship. He found a few fights in Europe, returning to London in June where he recorded Physical Culture for Edison Bell records (two copies still exist), whose release in September coincided with the start of WWI. The war collapsed the European boxing market entirely. With money running out, the Johnsons sailed for South America.
Johnson lost his title in Havana, Cuba in April 1915 to American Jess Willard, given the nickname ‘The Great White Hope’. Some think Johnson believed if he threw the fight the charges against him would be dropped. The day after he lost, he tried to return to the US, but Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan refused to issue him a passport.
With most of Europe still at war, the Johnsons headed for Spain. He returned to England where he was expelled under the Aliens Restriction Act in 1916, by which time the six inch shells of Germany’s artillery were known as ‘Jack Johnsons’ to British soldiers at the Front – probably because they were big, black, fast and hit with considerable power.
They arrived in Mexico, but with few fights and less money, Johnson approached the US government in spring 1920 and agreed to surrender. From the files he is said to have been truly sorry that he originally fled. On July 20, he stepped across the border at Tijuana into US custody, serving eight months in Leavenworth prison. He became the physical director of the inmates, supervising track meets, baseball games, and fight training. While behind bars he continued to track his business interests including a Harlem nightclub called Club Deluxe, and on his release he was met at the prison gates by a marching band and a horde of friends.
By 1921, Johnson had ended his exile, served his time, and began a new series of theatrical engagements and personal appearances. He recorded for Ajax Records. He patented a wrench he designed in prison to tighten loose fastenings. He was forced to sell his New York club to a Chicago mobster in 1923, who renamed it The Cotton Club. He fought occasionally and performed in vaudeville and carnival acts, even appearing with a trained flea act.
In 1924 he and his third wife were divorced and Johnson returned to boxing. In 1925 he married his fourth wife, Irene Pineau, whom he called the love of his life. He made his final ring appearance aged 67 on November 27, 1945, fighting three one minute exhibition rounds against two opponents in a benefit fight card for US War Bonds.
Run-ins with the law were confined to driving offences. Once given a $50 on the spot fine for speeding, he gave the officer a $100 bill, telling him to keep the change as he’d be breaking the speed limit on the way back. Five times cars rolled on top of Johnson. Five times he survived. The sixth time, June 10, 1946, he was less lucky. After racing angrily from a diner that refused to serve him, Johnson, now age 68, lost control of his car, hit a light pole and overturned on Highway 1, North Carolina. He was taken to the closest black hospital, Saint Agnes Hospital in Raleigh where he died three hours later. He was buried next to Etta Duryea Johnson at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, in an unmarked grave, which subsequently was given a headstone just saying ‘Johnson’. Not one boxer, nor any floral tribute from colleagues, was at his funeral.
As John Lardner wrote in Newsweek after Johnson died, “Whatever you write about me,” Lardner remembered Johnson telling him, “Just please remember that I’m a man, and a good one.”
Johnson was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954, and is on the roster of both the International Boxing Hall of Fame and the World Boxing Hall of Fame. In 2005, the US National Film Preservation Board deemed the film of the 1910 Johnson-Jeffries fight “historically significant” and put it in the National Film Registry. The play, The Great White Hope, by Howard Sackler (made into a movie in 1970, starring James Earl Jones) is based on his life. On May 24, 2018, after campaigns from John McCain and Sylvester Stallone, Johnson was given a Presidential Pardon by President Donald Trump.
Ken Burns’ acclaimed documentary Jack Johnson: Unforgivable Blackness, which was broadcast in 2013 in the UK on PBS America, is available on DVD.