Biography of Jack Johnson, American Boxing Champion

Jack Johnson
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Jack Johnson (March 31, 1878–June 10, 1946) was an American boxer who became the world's first Black American heavyweight champion. He came to fame during the Jim Crow era, when the South was still racially segregated. Johnson's success in the ring made him one of the most famous Black Americans of his time.

Fast Facts: Jack Johnson

  • Known For: Johnson was a Black American boxer who reigned as the heavyweight champion from 1908 to 1915.
  • Also Known As: John Arthur Johnson, Galveston Giant
  • Born: March 31, 1878 in Galveston, Texas
  • Parents: Henry and Tina Johnson
  • Died: June 10, 1946 in Raleigh, North Carolina
  • Published Works: My Life and Battles (1914), Jack Johnson: In the Ring and Out (1927)
  • Awards and Honors: International Boxing Hall of Fame
  • Spouse(s): Etta Terry Duryea (m. 1911-1912), Lucille Cameron (m. 1912-1924), Irene Pineau (m. 1925-1946)

Early Life

Jack Johnson was born John Arthur Johnson on March 31, 1878, in Galveston, Texas. His parents Henry and Tina Johnson were formerly enslaved; his father worked as a janitor and his mother worked as a dishwasher. Johnson left school after only a few years and went to work at the docks. He later moved to Dallas, where he first began learning how to box, and then Manhattan, where he roomed with boxer Barbados Joe Walcott. Johnson eventually returned to Galveston, where he participated in his first professional match on November 1, 1898. Johnson won the fight.

Boxing Career

Johnson boxed professionally from 1898 through 1928 and in exhibition matches until 1945. He fought 113 fights, winning 79 matches, 44 of them by knockouts. He defeated Canadian Tommy Burns on December 26, 1908, in the World Boxing Championship held in Sydney, Australia. This began a quest to find a "Great White Hope" to defeat him. James Jeffries, a leading White fighter, came out of retirement to answer the challenge.

The ensuing match—known as the "Fight of the Century"—took place on July 4, 1910, in Reno, Nevada, in front of a crowd of 20,000 people. The fight went on for 15 rounds, with Jeffries growing wearier and wearier. He was even knocked down—for the first time in his career—twice. His team decided to surrender to save Jeffries from having a knockout on his record.

For the fight, Johnson earned $65,000. News of Jeffries' defeat ignited numerous incidents of violence by White people against Black people, but Black poet William Waring Cuney captured the exuberant Black American reaction in his poem “My Lord, What a Morning:"

O my Lord,
What a morning,
O my Lord,
What a feeling,
When Jack Johnson
Turned Jim Jeffries'
Snow-white face
to the ceiling.

The Johnson-Jefferies fight was filmed and became one of the most popular motion pictures of the era. However, there was a strong movement to censor the film, as many people did not want to publicize the news of Johnson's victory.

Johnson won the heavyweight title when he knocked out Tommy Burns in 1908, and he held onto the title until April 5, 1915, when he was knocked out by Jess Willard in the 26th round of the world championship fight in Havana, Cuba. Johnson defended his heavyweight championship three times in Paris before his fight against Jess Willard. He continued boxing professionally until 1938, when, well past his prime, he lost his final match to Walter Price.

Johnson was known for his defensive fighting style; he preferred to gradually wear down his opponents rather than going for a knockout. With each passing round, as his opponents became more exhausted, Johnson would ratchet up his attacks until going for the final blow.

Personal Life

Johnson received bad publicity because of his three marriages, all to White women. Interracial marriages were prohibited in most of America at the time. He was convicted of violating the Mann Act in 1912 when he transported his wife across state lines before their marriage and was sentenced to a year in prison.

Fearing for his safety, Johnson escaped while he was out on appeal. Posing as a member of a Black baseball team, he fled to Canada and later to Europe and remained a fugitive for seven years.

Wrench Patent

In 1920, Johnson decided to return to the U.S. to serve his sentence. It was during this time that, searching for a tool that would tighten or loosen nuts and bolts, he made improvements to the design of the monkey wrench. Johnson received a patent for his innovations in 1922.

Johnson’s wrench was unique in that it could be easily taken apart for cleaning or repair and its gripping action was superior to that of other tools on the market at the time. Johnson is credited with coining the term “wrench.”

Later Years

After his release from prison, Jack Johnson's boxing career declined. He worked in vaudeville to make ends meet, even appearing with a trained flea act. He opened a night club in Harlem in 1920; it was later purchased from him and renamed the Cotton Club. Johnson wrote two memoirs, "Mes Combats" in 1914, and "Jack Johnson: In the Ring and Out" in 1927.


On June 10, 1946, Johnson was in an automobile accident near Raleigh, North Carolina, after speeding away from a diner where he was refused service. He was rushed to the nearest Black hospital, where he died at the age of 68. Johnson was buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.


Johnson was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954, followed by the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. His career inspired numerous people, including heavyweight champion Muhammed Ali and jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, who recorded an album in 1971 called "A Tribute to Jack Johnson." The 1910 film of Johnson's famous fight against James Jefferies was added to the National Film Registry in 2005. Johnson's life was the inspiration for the 1970 film "The Great White Hope."

On May 24, 2018, President Donald Trump issued a posthumous pardon for Johnson's 1912 conviction. Trump called the heavyweight champion "one of the greatest that ever lived" and "a truly great fighter."


  • Johnson, Jack. "Jack Johnson: in the Ring and Out." Kessinger Pub., 2007.
  • “Remarks by President Trump at Pardoning of John Arthur ‘Jack’ Johnson.” The White House, The United States Government.
  • Ward, Geoffrey C. "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson." Yellow Jersey Press, 2015.
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Bellis, Mary. "Biography of Jack Johnson, American Boxing Champion." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Bellis, Mary. (2021, February 16). Biography of Jack Johnson, American Boxing Champion. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "Biography of Jack Johnson, American Boxing Champion." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).