Before Mike Tyson, before Mohammad Ali, before Evander Holyfield, before them all, there was the Galveston Giant, Jack Johnson. Born on this day in 1878, the legendary boxer would become the first African American Undisputed Heavy Weight Champion of the World. That’s right!! Now I’m gonna tell you a story.
Born in Galveston, Texas, in 1878, Johnson began boxing professionally in 1897, when it was a relatively new sport. In an era of persistent racial discrimination, African-Americans were allowed to enter many competitions, but were not permitted to compete for the title of world champion. After winning many titles and a good deal of prize money, Johnson pushed for a fight against the reigning world heavyweight champion, James Jeffries. Jeffries refused to fight a black boxer, and decided to retire undefeated… for the time being.
While Jeffries was sitting back holding onto past glories, Jack was out there knocking them down like a groom at a bachelor party. Not only could Jack fight, but he would also put the mouth on them before he knocked them out. He talked to the boxer, he talked to the boxers corner and he talked to the crowd. Now lets get some perspective here. We talking about thirty years after the Civil War. A black man from Texas is knocking out heavy weight white boxers all over the country and dating white women. He’s taunting the boxers while he beats them and he is taunting the crowd, while he beats them. They wanted to kill him, but their pride wouldn’t let them do it. They wanted to make an example out of him first. They wanted him KNOCKED THE @#@%! OUT!!! It was common knowledge that, “Anyone who killed that ni**@r before a white man was able to knock him out in the ring… was a dead man.”
Back in the day, when boxing was a relatively new sport, they would fight until somebody was knocked out or couldn’t fight any longer. Actually the longest fight in boxing history was a fight between another African American champion, Joe Gans and Oscar Nelson. Gans was the “first” African American boxing champion. For my B-More readers, that’s where Gans, was from. Johnson was the the first “heavy weight”, African American champion. The fight between Gans and Nelson went “forty two” three minute rounds!! Gans’s won and kept his title. Anywho, remember when I told you about Jeffries not wanting to fight a black man for the title?
Well money talks and #$$@!! walks. Jefferies came out of retirement for about $100,000. That is a bit over $3 million in today’s money. Novelist Jack London, an influential reporter at the time summed it up this way, “Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and wipe that smile from Johnson’s face.” They wanted him!! They wasn’t taking no for an answer. The black hordes will take over and “Shelby” will never be the same. Shelby was a plantation in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Toms Cabin. It’s where the character Uncle Tom lived.
Anywho, on the day of the fight, fearing some folks might be feeling some kinda way in the event of a Johnson victory, the promoters did not allow the sale of alcohol. Firearms were checked at the gate. A crowd of more than 30,000 fans of both races jammed the arena and waited in the sweltering heat for the fight to begin. The fight between Johnson and Jefferies went on for 15 rounds. At first Johnson was a little hesitant. He weaved and bobbed for the first few rounds… just floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. Johnson was very careful. Before they had can’s of Raid, they used to have can’s of WhipAss, and Johnson did not want Jefferies to pull it out on him. By the 7th round, Johnson had figured out Jefferies was faking. He did not have a can of “WhipAss.”
But Jefferies suprised Johnson and although he did not have a can of WhipAss, he had a small spray bottle bottle of “Watchout.” At the end of the seventh round Johnson went back to his corner with his left eye nearly swollen shut. Of course the crowd was eating it up. Some folks in the audience started putting on white hoods and and smoking cigars shaped like crosses. Black folks started heading to the top bleecher’s, they had already had friends put ladders at the back of the stadium in case things went south. Some folks was hanging by their fingernails on the back of the stadium with just their heads showing, ready to drop if Johnson did.
The rounds went by, 12, 13, 14.. By the 15th round Jefferies was out of “Watchout,” and Johnson immediately pull out his spray bottle of “WatchThis,” Bam!! Bam !! Bam!! It was the first time in Jefferies boxing career that he had been knocked down. He got back up… Bam!! Bam!! Bam!! This time he was knocked out the ropes. Now I don’t know what kinda rules they was playing by, but his corner helped in back into the ring and stood him up while the ref counted. By the time the ref got close to finishing the count, the ring bell sounded, indicating the end of the round. It was a tense minute between rounds. Ring!! Ring!!. The beginning of the 15th round, Jefferies corner rushed in to help him stand up. BAM!! BAM!! BAM!! Unfortunately the ref wasn’t going to have it. He called TKO.!! Jack Johnson, Mouth Almighty and Dater Of White Women had won!! The crowd EXPLODED!! KNIVES AND GUNS WAS COMING FROM EVERYWHERE!! Black folks were dropping off the back of the stadium yelling “Jack Johnson Won!!, Jack Johnson Won!!” The crowd rushed the ring and someone grabbed the ref by the neck. It was said he told them, “What did you want me to do? Let that Ni**@r knock a white man out?” They say many years after the fight, they found a broken whistle and a faded hood in the ground where the stadium used to be… I don’t know… but that’s what they say. After the TKO, Johnson was covered in a sheet and safely made it out… Okay.. I really don’t know how he got outta there… I would really like to know…
Immediate AfterMath: From an article in TimeLine.
“Independence Day, 1910, race riots ignited across America. Jack Johnson, a black boxer, had defeated the white Jim Jeffries in a heavyweight fight in the middle of the Reno desert. Cities around the nation, including Houston, New York, St. Louis, Omaha, New Orleans, Little Rock, and Los Angeles, erupted with the anger and vindication of a racially divided country.
The day after, newspapers set on the difficult task of tallying the aftermath. “One man was shot in Arkansas, two negroes were killed at Lake Providence, La.; one negro was killed at Mounds, Ill., and a negro fatally wounded in Roundeye, Va.,” reported one local newspaper, explaining that “the tension that existed everywhere vented itself out chiefly in street shuffles.”
A report from Houston read, “Charles Williams, a negro fight enthusiast, had his throat slashed from ear to ear on a streetcar by a white man, having announced too vociferously his appreciation of Jack Johnson’s victory in Reno.”
In Manhattan’s San Juan Hill neighborhood, a mob set fire to a black tenement, while blocking the doorway to prevent the occupants’ escape. In St. Louis, a black crowd marched the streets, pushing whites off the sidewalk and harassing them, before being clubbed and dispersed by police.
In Washington, two white men were fatally stabbed by black men, with 236 people arrested in that city alone. And in Omaha, a black man was smothered to death in a barber’s chair, while in Wheeling, West Virginia, a black man driving an expensive car — just as the playboyish Jack Johnson was famous for — was beset by a mob and hanged.
As Johnson biographer Geoffrey C. Ward pointed out, “No event yielded such widespread racial violence until the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., fifty-eight years later…”
Readers he was the real deal and his story is fascinating!! To read more on the Aftermath of the Johnson- Jefferies fight from TimeLine, please click here. On October 6, 1946, after a North Carolina diner denied him service, he stormed out of the business and soon afterwards crashed his car. Johnson died from the impact. He was 68. For more on Jack Johnson’s life, please click here.
*That’s not Jefferies in the feature picture.