John Arthur 'Jack' Johnson

Boxing world champion, role model and club founder

Jack Johnson founded the forerunner of the legendary Cotton Club, the Club Delux in New York and was the first black boxing world champion in heavyweight boxing history.

The reason why I am interested in the boxer Jack Johnson is that since the beginning of the year I have been on the lookout for clues in the book Schau heimwärts, Engel! by the US-American author Thomas Wolfe. I examine all the phenomena, metaphors, authors and terms that are mentioned in the book and are unknown to me.

It is about this quotation:

Original: Tell him who you are, Villa,, said Doc Hines. You look like Jack Johnson.

German Translation:Sag ihnen, wer Du bist, Othello, rief ihm Doc Hines nach. Sonst halten sie Dich für den Negerboxer Jack Johnson.

Source: Wolfe, Thomas: Schau heimwärts, Engel!, Rowohlt Verlag, Hamburg 1954

Who was this boxer, why was he perhaps extraordinary or remarkable?

Enslaved parents

Early school leaving at the age of 6

John Arthur "Jack" Johnson was born on 31 March 1878 in Galveston, Texas as one of nine children of Tina and Henry Johnson. His parents were former slaves and came from Ghana. His father fought in the American Civil War in the all-black 38th Infantry Regiment. Johnson once said about his father

most perfect physical specimen that he had ever seen

Source: Wikpedia

At only six years of age, the frail child left school to work in the docks of Galveston, Texas. Later he took a job at the Texas racetrack in Dallas, and finally came to the carriage painter Walter Lewis, who liked to watch boxers sparring. That is how Johnson got into boxing.

He moved to New York, lived together with welterweight fighter Joe Walcott, moved back to Galveston, where he started working as a caretaker of a gymnasium owned by the German-born heavyweight boxer Hermann Bernau.

Prison at twenty

Start of the boxing career

After his third professional boxing match in 1898 against Joe Choynski, a popular white heavyweight boxer, both boxers were arrested, as boxing for prize money was prohibited in Texas at the time. The Sheriff of Galveston allowed both of them to go home at night if they would box together in the cell during the day. And so Jack Johnson learned to box in a jail cell in Galveston, Texas. Choynski later said about Johnson: 

Joe Choynski

A man who can move like you should never have to take a punch.

Source: The New York Times. May 26, 2018.

Heavyweight World Champion

On the hunt for an opponent

By 1903 Jack Johnson had won at least 50 fights against both white and black opponents. Johnson won his first title for the World Heavyweight Coloured Championship on 3 February 1903 and beat Denver Ed Martin on points in a 20-round match.

Now Johnson was also trying to win the heavyweight championship, but this was thwarted by the refusal of reigning white world champion James J. Jeffries to compete against him.

Finally, on 26 December 1908, Jack Johnson won the world championship title in a fight against the reigning world champion and Canadian Tommy Burns in Sydney. Johnson had followed Burns around the globe for two years and had repeatedly mocked him in public to provoke him to the fight. The 14-round boxing match was finally ended by the police and Johnson was declared the winner.

After Johnson's victory over Burns, the racial hostility among the whites in the USA went so deep that they demanded that a great white hope had to appear in order to end Johnson's unworthy era as black world champion. He was challenged by many white hopes to fight for the title, but he won them all.

The Washington herald, June 26, 1910, Sporting Section, Image 36
The Washington herald, June 26, 1910, Sporting Section, Image 36 / Link :
Ein Ereignis in Reno, Nevada

Der Kampf des Jahrhunderts

William Waring Cuney


Oh, my Lord
What a morning,
Oh, my Lord,
What a feeling,
When Jack Johnson
Turned Jim Jeffries?
Snow-white face
Up to the ceiling.
Yes, my Lord,
Fighting is wrong,
But what an uppercut.
Oh, my Lord,
What a morning,
Oh, my Lord
What a feeling,
When Jack Johnson
Turned Jim Jeffries?
Lily-white face
Up to the ceiling.
Oh, my Lord
What a morning,
Oh, my Lord
Take care of Jack.
Keep him, Lord
As you made him,
Big, and strong, and black.

William Waring Cuney, Source: Bush Theatre

William Waring Cuney (born 6 May 1906 - died 30 June 1976) was a poet of the Harlem Renaissance


In 1910 James J. Jeffries came back from retirement to, as he put it:

I go into this fight solely to prove that a white man is better than a black man.

Source: David Remnick, The Guardian, Struggle for his soul

The Washington Herald calculated the odds for Jeffries on 26 June 1910, and if you look at the table today, 110 years later, all the signs were already there for Johnson before the battle. (See the picture above)

The racial tensions, which had already been stirred up by the media in advance, came to a head before the boxing match on 4 July 1910. In order to prevent damage to the boxers, firearms in the arena, the sale of alcohol and apples were banned before the boxing match. A boxing ring with seats for 20,000 people was built in Reno city centre especially for the fight. Jeffries did not stand a chance and proved unable to impose his will on Johnson in the ring. In the 15th round, after Johnson had knocked him down twice, Jeffries threw in the towel. (Photo: Jeffries knocked out, The Call, 6 July 1910 ) Johnson later remarked on the fight that he knew Jeffries was finished when he hit him in the face with an uppercut in the 4th round. The Johnson-Jeffries fight was filmed about the fight, excerpts of it are available on Youtube.

Jack Johnson on James J. Jeffries:

The old ship was sinking.

Source: Wikipedia

Jeffries himself said about Johnson that he could not beat him in 1000 years. For Johnson, the fight brought him the impressive bounty of $65,000, which today is about $2 million.


After the fighting, riots broke out in over 25 American cities on the evening of 4 July. Parts of the white population felt humiliated by Johnson's victory, the hope for a victory of the "great white hope" was gone.

The black population, on the other hand, cheered the victory and celebrated it as a success. The black poet William Waring Cuney wrote the poem My Lord, What a morning about Johnson's victory and in it he emphasised the reaction of the black population to the victory.

Over twenty people were killed and hundreds more injured in the riots.

Ende der Karriere

Leben, Flucht, Gefängnis und der Cotton Club

Under the reigning and now black world champion Jack Johnson, the racist ban against black boxers also continued. Johnson refused to defend himself against black boxers. Black boxers and challengers were boycotted by the federations. In the black community, Johnson was highly criticised for his behaviour. On April 5, 1915, Johnson lost his title to Jess Willard, a working cowboy from Kansas who started boxing at the age of twenty-seven. In front of 25,000 spectators at the Oriental Park racecourse in Havana, Cuba, Johnson was eliminated in the 26th round of the fight, which was scheduled to last over 45 rounds. Although Johnson had won almost every round, he began to tire after the 20th round and was often badly hit by Willard in the laps leading up to the knockout in the 26th round.(Source: Wikipedia)

After his boxing career, Johnson led a dissolute life of fast cars and tailor-made clothing. He spent a lot of money on women, gave them furs and jewellery. He defied the conventions of the time about the right place of a black person in American society. Johnson opened the Club Café de Champion in Chicago in July 1912, and in 1920 he opened the Club Delux in New York, Harlem at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue, which was taken over by Owney "The Killer" Madden in 1923 and turned into the legendary Cotton Club.

Mann Act

In 1912 Johnson was arrested several times for violating the Mann Act. This Act prohibited minors from crossing state borders. The primary stated intention of the Act was to combat prostitution, immorality and human trafficking. Johnson was released on bail, skipped bail and fled, disguised as a team member of a baseball team, to Canada and finally to Europe, where he lived for 7 years. He returned to the USA in 1920, was arrested again and served a year in prison.

On 10 June 1946, boxer Jack Johnson died in a car accident on US Highway 1 near Franklinton, North Carolina.


Over the past 20 years there have been many attempts to pardon Johnson posthumously and it was indeed Donald J. Trump who did so during a ceremony on May 24, 2018 in the presence of Mauricio Sulaiman, Hector Sulaiman, Sylvester Stallone, Deontay Wilder and Lennox Lewis. Jack Johnson was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993.

Johnsons Leben wurde zweimal verfilmt. Die große weiße Hoffnung (Trailer) ist ein eher romantisches Filmdrama von Martin Ritt aus dem Jahr 1970, nach dem mit dem Pulitzer-Preis für Dramen ausgezeichneten gleichnamigen Stück von Howard Sackler über die Lebensgeschichte des Boxers. In der Hauptrolle der junge James Earl Jones. Ken Burns drehte 2004 die Dokumentation Er wollte kein Sklave sein ( Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson) über den schwarzen Boxer aus Galveston, Texas. (Trailer/Summary)

Johnson's life was filmed twice. The Great White Hope (trailer) is a rather romantic film drama by Martin Ritt from 1970, based on Howard Sackler's play of the same name, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, about the life story of the boxer. The leading role is played by the young James Earl Jones. In 2004 Ken Burns made the documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson about the black boxer from Galveston, Texas. (trailer/summary)

tl, dr;

The black boxer Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight boxing world champion in 1908. His defending title fight against the white James J. Jeffries in Reno, Nevada, was long called the fight of the century. Johnson founded Club Delux in New York, the forerunner of the Cotton Club.

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