Jack Johnson’s training gloves

Galveston man was first African American world heavyweight champion

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During a time when Jim Crow laws marginalized African Americans and enforced segregation, Jack Johnson (1878–1946) claimed the world heavyweight boxing title from 1908 to 1915.

Over Johnson’s nearly 50-year career, he was knocked out just 3 times and lost only 11 bouts. Despite his success, Johnson was a controversial figure. He flaunted his wealth and fame, gloated about his victories, and had relationships with white women, including three marriages, defying public opinion of how African Americans should act.

Johnson won the Negro Heavyweight Championship in 1903 but had been crossing the color-line to box white fighters for several years by then. His February 1901 bout against white fighter Joe Choynski in Galveston resulted in Johnson getting knocked out in the third round and both fighters getting arrested. While boxing exhibitions were legal in Texas, prizefighting in which a man was knocked out was not.

Johnson first won the heavyweight title in 1908 by defeating reigning champ Tommy Burns, but white America was unwilling to accept a black champion. Former champion Jim Jeffries, who had never lost during his career, returned to the ring from a six-year retirement as a “great white hope” to reclaim the title. On July 4, 1910, Johnson defeated Jeffries in the 15th round, setting off deadly race riots across the U.S.

In 1910, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) began investigating Johnson and his relationships with white women for violating the Mann Act, which prohibited the “transport of women across state lines for the purposes of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purposes.” They initially arrested him for travelling with his wife, former prostitute Lucille Cameron, but she refused to testify against her husband. The DOJ then turned to Belle Schreiber, a prostitute and Johnson's ex-girlfriend who had travelled with him from Pittsburg to Chicago before the Mann Act had been passed. In June 1913, an all-white jury convicted Johnson and sentenced him to a year in prison. With his wife Lucille, Johnson fled the country, living and boxing abroad for the next seven years. On July 20, 1920, they returned to the U.S., and Johnson handed himself over to the authorities to serve his sentence. Johnson was pardoned by President Trump in 2018, who called his conviction a “racially motivated injustice,” after 14 years of lobbying by family and supporters.

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Jack Johnson’s training gloves Artifact from Galveston
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