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Jack Johnson, first black heavyweight champ

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Editor’s note: This is one in a series of Black History Month highlights of prominent African Americans and important events.

Jack Johnson (1878-1946) stood tall in the ring, becoming the first African-American world heavyweight champion.

He was born in Galveston, Texas, but later moved to Chicago. Besides his boxing prowess, he spoke a number of languages, played a musical instrument, raced cars and owned the Café de Champion in Chicago. 

Johnson rose through the ranks in boxing but was denied a shot at the heavyweight title when champion James Jeffries retired after refusing to fight him because he was black.

In 1908, Johnson was given a shot at the new champ, Canadian Tommy Burns. Johnson won, becoming heavyweight champion of the world. Race riots broke out across the U.S.

The biggest fight of Johnson’s career came in 1910 when Jeffries came out of retirement to face the champ, saying it was his duty to reclaim the title for whites. Johnson defeated Jeffries in what was billed as “the fight of the century.”

But outside the ring, Johnson’s relationships with white women provoked outrage. He was charged with violating the Mann Act, which banned transporting women across state lines for “immoral purposes.” Many complained he was being persecuted.

Johnson was convicted but fled the country. In 1915, he lost the championship to white boxer Jess Willard in a match held in Cuba.

Johnson returned to the U.S. in 1920 and served his prison sentence. 

In 1946, Johnson died in a car accident. He is buried in Graceland cemetery in Chicago.  

Sources:,,, “Unforgiveable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.”

Matt Wilhalme

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