Get to know Jack Johnson

Born John Arthur Johnson on March 31, 1878, in Galveston, Texas, Jack debuted as a professional boxer on November 1, 1889. Nicknamed the “Galveston Giant,” he fought in a total of 95 matches, one of them here in Kansas City at The Folly Theater in the early 1900s.

Johnson was repeatedly refused a shot to compete for the world heavyweight title because of his race. He was finally given his chance in 1908 when he faced champion Tommy Burns in Rushcutter’s Bay near Sydney, Australia, where he won with a technical knockout (TKO) in the 14th round.

During the height of the Jim Crow era, Johnson became the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion and held the title for seven years (1908-1915).

He owned Café de Champion, a plush “black and tan” (desegregated) nightclub and restaurant in Chicago at 41 W. 31st St., which opened in July 1912, but was shut down a few months later. His relationships, including marriages to white women, resulted in a racially-motivated arrest and one-year prison sentence in Oct. 1912 for which he left the country in protest, but ultimately served at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth when he returned to the United States in 1920.

Johnson retained his popularity for the rest of his life, and fought in paying matches, garnered lucrative sponsorships, and owned several successful businesses. He died at age 68 on June 10, 1946 in a car crash in Franklinton, North Carolina, and is buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.

Sources:, Jack Johnson: African American Boxer, The International Boxing Hall of Fame

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