John Arthur "Jack"
Johnson (March 31, 1878 - June 10, 1946), nicknamed the Galveston
Giant was an American boxer, who at the height of the Jim Crow era
became the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion
(1908 - 1915). Johnson was faced with much controversy when he was
charged with violating the Mann Act in 1912, even though there was
an obvious lack of evidence and the charge was largely racially based.
In a documentary about his life, Ken Burns notes that "for more than
thirteen years, Jack Johnson was the most famous and the most notorious
African American on Earth".
Johnson was born the third
child of nine, and the first son, of Henry and Tina "Tiny" Johnson,
two former slaves who worked blue collar jobs as a janitor and a dishwasher
to support their children and put them through school. His father
Henry served as a civilian teamster of the Union's 38th Colored Infantry,
and was a role model for his son. As Jack once said, his father was
"The most perfect physical specimen that he had ever seen, "although
his father was only 5 ft 5 in and left with and atrophied right leg
from his service in the war.
Growing up in Galveston, Texas,
Johnson attended five years of school and was known as a bright, talkative,
and energetic kid. Like all of his siblings, Jack was expected to
work to keep the family going while he was growing up. He helped sweep
classrooms to ease the work for his father, and he worked for the
local milk man before school, taking care of the horses while the
milk man got off to make deliveries. For this work he was paid 10
cents and a red pair of socks, which his boss had a seemingly endless
supply of, every Saturday.
Although Jack grew up in the South,
he said that segregation was not an issue in the somewhat secluded
city of Galveston, as everyone living in Galveston's 12th Ward was
poor and went through the same struggles. Johnson remembers growing
up with a "gang" of white boys, in which he never felt victimized
or excluded. Remembering his childhood, Johnson said, "As I grew up,
the white boys were my friends and my pals. I ate with them, played
with them and slept at their homes. Their mothers gave me cookies,
and I ate at their tables. No one ever taught me that white men were
superior to me." Jack carried this mentality to his boxing career,
as he would not be intimidated to fight any man, no matter their race.
During his days as a child Johnson was a frail young boy and
not much of a fighter, as he grew up under the protection of his two
older sisters until he was twelve yers old. Jack was usually able
to avoid quarrels until he was twelve years old, and was confronted
by a boy who hit him on the jaw. About to run away from the quarrel
Johnson remembers grandma Gilmore, or his mother (the story varies
by whomever tells it), who told him, "Arthur, if you do not whip Willie,
I shall whip you". After winning the fight, Johnson developed a new
mentality, and toughness to carry with him through his life.
Johnson quit attending school, he began a job working at the local
docks, soon discovering that he hated it. He made several other attempts
at working other jobs around town, until one day he made his way to
Dallas, finding work at the race track exercising horses. Jack stuck
with this job until he would find a new apprenticeship for a carriage
painter by the name of Walter Lewis. Lewis, who had a passion for
boxing, enjoyed watching friends spar, and although boxing was somewhat
new to Johnson, he began to learn how to hit hard and strong. Johnson
later claimed that it was thanks to Lewis that he would become a boxer.
After returning home for a short period of time, Johnson once
again left at the age of 16, this time heading for Manhattan. While
in Manhattan, Jack found living arrangements with Joe Walcott, a welterweight
fighter from the West Indies. Once again Johnson found work exercising
horses for the local stable, until he was fired for exhausting a horse.
Soon finding employement as a janitor for a gym owned by German born
heavyweight fighter, Herman Berneau, Johnson eventually put away enough
for two pairs of boxing gloves, sparring every chance he got. Throughout
his time in Manhattan, living with Walcott and working for Berneau,
Johnson began to develop his unique style of fighting which would
make him famous.