December 26, 2008 marks the 100th anniversary of Jack Johnson’s heavyweight title victory. Johnson defeated Tommy Burns the day after Christmas 1908 in Sydney, Australia. Long before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional baseball (1947), Jack Johnson had smashed the color barrier in the sport of professional boxing.
In his 1927 autobiography Johnson writes… “I had attained my life’s ambition. The little Galveston colored boy had defeated the world’s champion boxer and for the first and only time in history, a black man held one of the greatest honors which exists in the field of sports and athletics—an honor for which white men had contested many times and which they held as a dear and most desirable one. Naturally I felt a high sense of exaltation. I was supremely glad that I had attained the championship, but I kept this feeling to myself. I did not gloat over the fact that a white man had fallen. My satisfaction was only in the fact that one man had conquered another, and that I had been the conqueror. To me it was not a racial triumph, but there were those who were to take this view of the situation, and almost immediately a great hue and cry went up because a colored man was holding the championship.”
Johnson only wanted to be the best in his profession. Johnson made $121,000 for his 1910 fight against Jim Jeffries. He could have made more had he agreed to lose the fight. He only wanted to live his life the way he saw fit. He refused to let anyone, black or white set boundaries for him. For this he was hated by both blacks and whites. The Chicago Tribune ran the following story in the paper March 12, 1909 warning Jack Johnson…BEWARE MR. JACK JOHNSON TEXAS AUTHORITIES WILL PROSECUTE THE CHAMPION IF HE TAKES WHITE WIFE TO THAT STATE. Galveston had planned a parade for their native son, but upon finding out that he was married to a white woman the parade was canceled. The Tribune also reported, “The negroes in charge of the affair declare they have too many friends among the white citizens to offend them…if Johnson insisted on thrusting his wife upon the friends of his boyhood and his own relatives, the celebration would be called off.”
Jack Johnson was left with no place that he could call home. His mother and family were still living here. His father had died in 1905. The place that had shaped him into the man he had become was no longer a place that he could call home. 1880 census records show that his parents owned property in Galveston. Jack had survived the 1900 storm. With all that he had overcome to win the title. With each powerful blow in the ring, he was still unable to defeat one opponent outside of the ring. In spite of this fact he lived his life on his terms. He may not have been a model citizen, but he was a champion.