4.10.11

The Galveston Giant

Tuesday, 7 July 1896 - Galveston, Texas

Today I met a chap who will become one of Galveston’s most famous sons, John Arthur Johnson., better known as Jack. Right now he is an unknown. I found him in a front yard using a gunny sack full of sand as a punching bag. He has a lot of power and speed, but he still needs to learn form. Right now he’s only eighteen.

Jack Johnson
I yelled over the fence that I was lost, and could he direct me to the train station. I think it pleased him that I called him “sir” instead of “boy.” Otherwise I think he might have ignored me. Johnson is over six foot tall and already muscular. No wonder his nickname will be “the Galveston Giant.” He’s not afraid of anyone.

He came over to the fence and gave me directions.

I introduced myself, hoping he would verify my suspicions of who he was. He introduced himself as Jack Johnson.

“Are you a boxer, sir?”

“Yes, I am. I’m a professional. Last year Bob Thompson came to town offering $25 to anyone who could last four rounds with him. I won it.” Then he frowned. “I don’t think I can get very far in Galveston. I’m thinking of going up north, maybe to Chicago. I’m going to be the heavy weight champion someday.”

“I understand America is rather racist. Will they let a colored man even try for the title?”

“George Dixon is the featherweight champion of the world right now, and he’s colored. I’m too big to be anything else but heavyweight champion.”

“Well sir, someone will have to be the first colored heavyweight champion some day.”

“Might as well be me.” Johnson hit his gloves together and grinned.

I wished him luck and went on my way. Johnson went back to slugging his punching bag.

Jack Johnson does have quite a fight ahead of him, the hardest one being outside of the ring. He will have to fight Jim Crow. It’s almost impossible to find a white boxer that will consent to fight him. He will finally find a white boxer who will agree, veteran Joe Choynski. He’ll come down to Galveston to meet Johnson in the ring.

Joe Choynski and Jack Johnson
Unfortunately boxing is illegal in Texas. After Choynski knocks out untrained Johnson, the two men will be arrested and tossed into jail together for 23 days. Probably the best thing that ever happened to Johnson. He and Choynski will talk about boxing and became good friends. Choynski will be impressed with Johnson’s talent, and became his sparring partner, teaching him everything he knows.

Johnson will rise through the heavy-weight ranks, until he is at the top by 1903. However the reigning champion, Jim Jeffries, will refuse to fight him because of his race. It won’t be until 1908, after Jeffries had retired, that Johnson got his shot--and won.

However, being heavyweight champion of the world did not ingratiate Johnson to the racists. They will complain he is too cocky, fights too aggressive and belittles of his opponents. Never mind that white boxers do the same thing at this time and are admired for it. To be honest he is only brutal to fighters who are racists.

Jack and his wife Etta
Even worse, Johnson liked white women and they really liked him. Jack Johnson was hated because he didn’t know his place. He knew his place. It was at the top.

Jack London cried for a “Great White Hope” to defeat this “uppity” fellow. One after another challenged him and were beaten. Johnson often had to hold them up after hitting them. The great Jim Jeffries agreed to come out of retirement and finally fought Johnson. He later reluctantly admitted he couldn’t have beat Johnson in his prime. Jeffries would not have retired undefeated if he had played fair and agreed to fight Johnson back in 1903.

Jim Jeffries getting knocked out by Jack Johnson
Jack Johnson will hold the title from 1908 to 1915. He will finally lose it at the age of thirty-seven to a younger man. Thirty-seven is ancient for a boxer. He will be considered one of the greatest boxers of all time. Not bad for the son of former slaves. He will inspire many. Maybe Jack Johnson should have been called “the Great Black Hope.”

film clips of Jack Johnson

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