John Arthur “Jack” Johnson (March 31, 1878 – June 10, 1946), nicknamed the Galveston Giant was an American boxer, who—at the height of the Jim Crow era—became the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion (1908–1915). Johnson was faced with much controversy when he was charged with violating the Mann Act in 1912 even though there was an obvious lack of evidence and was largely racially based. In a documentary about his life, Ken Burns notes that “for more than thirteen years, Jack Johnson was the most famous and the most notorious African-American on Earth.”
Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas, the second child and first son of Henry and Tina “Tiny” Johnson, former slaves who worked at blue-collar jobs to raise six children and taught them how to read and write. Henry Johnson traced his ancestry back to the Coromantees of modern-day Ghana. Johnson at the age of 12, because he wanted to get away from his hometown of Galveston, Texas, jumped a freight train in hope to make it to New York. On the train he was beaten and thrown off once they discovered him. Johnson dropped out of school after five or six years of education to get a job. Johnson found a job in a carriage-shop. His boss at the carriage shop, an ex-fighter, taught Johnson how to box. After acquiring the job on the docks of Galveston, he earned side money by taking on fellow workers in brawls where onlookers threw money into a pot for the winner. His first fight had a purse of only $1.50, but Johnson jumped at the chance and was able to win the fight.
Johnson made his debut as a professional boxer on Nov. 1, 1898 in Galveston, Texas when he knocked out Charley Brooks in the second round of a 15-round bout for what was billed as “The Texas State Middleweight Title”. In his third pro fight on May 8, 1899, he battled “Klondike” (John W. Haynes or Haines), an African American heavyweight known as “The Black Hercules”, in Chicago. Klondike (so called as he was considered a rarity, like the gold in The Klondike), who had declared himself the “Black Heavyweight Champ”, won on a technical knockout (TKO) in the fifth round of a scheduled six-rounder. The two fighters met again in 1900, with the first contest resulting in a draw as both fighters were on their feet at the end of 20 rounds. Johnson won the second fight by a TKO when Klondike refused to come out for the 14th round. Johnson did not claim Klondike’s unrecognized title.