Which Boxing Champ Was ‘Unforgivably Black’?

Jack Johnson
Library of Congress
Jack Johnson
Library of Congress

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.


Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 98: Who were the first black boxing champions?

Before Lennox Lewis and Chris Byrd, before Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, before Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis, there was the mighty Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champ, whose name has roamed through this article series as he once roamed around the boxing ring.  

Yet before narrating his tale, I should note that, well before Jack Johnson, black boxers had established a rich history in the ring in Europe. Our old friend Joel A. Rogers, whose 100 Amazing Facts inspired this series, cites two men in particular: Bill Richmond and Thomas Molineaux—both born before the signing of the U.S. Constitution. Johnson’s feats in the ring built on those of Richmond and Molineaux, while he also challenged racism in his own fearless way. May his “Unforgivable Blackness,” as my friend Ken Burns titled his landmark 2005 documentary about Johnson, become unforgettable in the annals of civil-rights pioneers and in the pages of American history.  

But first, let’s travel back in time to England. 

Bill Richmond

Boxing was the most popular organized sport in 18th-century England, then the world center of boxing. The sport also was popular in America but comparatively underdeveloped, as Elliott Gorn writes in 2012’s The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America. So it’s not surprising that the history of early black boxers takes us across the pond.  

Bill “the Black Terror” Richmond was “the first black boxer of international repute,” David Dabydeen writes in the Oxford Companion to Black British History. Richmond was born in 1763 to slave parents brought north by their master from Georgia. According to Michael Krenn in the African American National Biography, Richmond so impressed Maj. Gen. Earl Percy (later Duke of Northumberland) during the British occupation of Revolutionary New York that he was sent to England to study and apprentice as a cabinetmaker. There, Krenn writes, “Richmond found his real calling as a prizefighter.”

Richmond made his bones fighting British soldiers bare-knuckled. In 1804, Richmond overcame a third-round knockout and, in 1805, throttled two opponents: “Youssop the Jew” and Jack Holmes. This put him in a position to challenge the future heavyweight champ, Tom Cribb. The only problem was that Richmond was 10 years older than Cribb, and 90 minutes into their October 1805 bout, it showed. “Even in this defeat, however, Richmond gained admirers for his skill, tenacity, and bravery,” Krenn writes. Amazingly, Richmond continued fighting into his 50s, defeating the man who had KO’d him, George Maddox, and winning his last fight, against Jack Carter, in 1818. With his winnings, Richmond opened a tavern and trained other boxers. He died in 1829 and was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1999.


Tom Molineaux

Tom Molineaux, too, was American born, in Virginia it seems (in what would become Washington, D.C.), in 1784. Like his father, Zachary, he was a slave and a fighter whose owner, according to David Dabydeen in the Oxford Companion to Black British History, was “a wealthy playboy who frequently used him in fights against other slaves.” (Reading this, I couldn’t help but think of the diabolical slave master played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained). “In one particular event,” Dabydeen writes, “Molineaux’s master bet $100,000 that he would defeat another slave in a match and promised to grant him his freedom should he win. Molineaux won and left for England in 1803, where he met and subsequently trained under Bill Richmond.”


In Molineaux’s first fight in England, he “punished his opponent so severely, that it was impossible to distinguish a single feature in his face,” Paul Magriel wrote in Phylon in 1951. Soon, he, too, set his sights on Cribb, the English champ. Their first match, on Dec. 18, 1810, at Copthall Common in Sussex, “was an especially trying one,” Dabydeen writes, “as the weather was severe and Cribb’s supporters became rowdy following Molineaux’s impending triumph.” At one point, Dabydeen says, “[t]hey entered the boxing ring, attacking Molineaux and consequently breaking his finger.” Somehow Molineaux “persevered and knocked Cribb out in the 28th round.” But Cribb “claimed that Molineaux had lead bullets in his fists, causing more riotous behaviour from Cribb’s supporters,” Dabydeen says, adding that Molineaux lost only because he “slipped and hit his head on a ring post.”  

Not surprisingly, Molineaux challenged Cribb to a rematch, but on Sept. 28, 1811, the black boxer again went home brokenhearted, and this time broken-jawed, too, with Cribb winning in 11 rounds. Descending into “the drink,” Molineaux nevertheless continued to box—and even wrestling on tour—losing his last fight, against George Cooper, in 1815. Molineaux died in Ireland in 1818, “a wasted skeleton, a penniless beggar, a shell of his former self,” Al-Tony Gilmore writes in Africana.


Yet, even in defeat, these pioneers of the ring did what few others of the race could have dared at a time when slavery was still legal in the United States and throughout the British Empire: earn money striking white men with their fists. Now, to America, we return. 

Jack Johnson

When John L. Sullivan became heavyweight champ in 1882, he announced a whites-only policy: No black contenders need apply. The Sullivan rule was, like the shift from bare-knuckled fighting to gloves, a departure from the earlier reign of British boxer Tom Cribb, and it had the effect of heightening Jim Crow segregation in the sport, as Gail Bederman explains in her 1995 book Manliness and Civilization. Yet, as Gerald Early writes in his essay “Rebel of the Progressive Era,” African-American boxers kept coming, since other sports such as baseball and horse racing barred them altogether.


Enter John Arthur Johnson. Nicknamed “the Big Smoke,” Jack Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas, on March 31, 1878. Galveston, you’ll recall, played host to the first Juneteenth celebration, which would have held personal meaning for Johnson’s parents, both former slaves. A book lover with a soft spot for Napoleon, Johnson told many stories about his early life in post-Reconstruction America—for instance, that when he was 12, his grandmother, seeing him hit by another boy, demanded Jack whip his opponent or else she’d whip him. Details shifted, but not their mythic quality. (For more, see Geoffrey Ward’s companion book to the Ken Burns film, Unforgiveable Blackness.)

Boxing represented Johnson’s shot at the American dream. Yet just as he was leaving behind menial jobs for the ring, his government was hardening the color line against all black men. And, lest we forget, the 1898 Spanish American War typified white men’s belief that they were naturally superior over the world's darker-skinned peoples, especially on lands they might colonize, such as Cuba and the Philippines.


It was up to Johnson to prove them wrong. Although he wasn’t what we would call a race man (his stakes were far more personal), Johnson lived his life according to a simple maxim he legislated with his fists: “I am not a slave.” Whatever rules existed, and despite the omnipresent threat of lynching or arrest, Johnson refused to bow, and it certainly didn’t bother him that prize-fighting was outlawed in a host of states. In fact, going to jail with a more experienced white opponent in 1901 gave Johnson an opening to learn new tricks from an old pro, as Burns reveals in his marvelous film.

Johnson traveled anywhere there was money to be made, and by 1902 he had notched 27 wins against black and white opponents. The highlight of the year was his May 16 knockout of Jack Jeffries, brother of the reigning heavyweight champ, Jim Jeffries, whom Johnson longed to fight. But Jeffries, like Sullivan before him, refused any challenge that might result in a black man wearing the belt.


Still, Johnson kept coming. In 1903, Ward writes, he defeated black boxer Ed Martin to become “the colored heavyweight champion of the world.” Other black victims—Sam McVey, Joe Jennette and Sam Langford—followed. None of this mattered, though, to Jim Jeffries, who retired to his California farm in 1905 claiming there was no one left to fight. Succeeding him was Tommy Burns, who vowed to uphold the white-champs-only rule. Public pressure, however, even from none other than Edward VII, the king of England—not to mention an Australian promoter’s willingness to meet Burns’ demands for a $30,000 cut plus a slice of the film rights—weakened Burns’ resolve.

The interracial title bout was set for Dec. 26, 1908, just as President Theodore Roosevelt was preparing to relinquish the White House to William Howard Taft en route to a hunting trip in Africa. In Australia, Johnson did some hunting of his own, and the beating he put on Burns was so fierce that the camera crew stopped filming to avoid enflaming audiences with the black challenger’s devastating last punch.


The reality, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, was that many whites couldn’t “handle the truth.” Neither would they accept the result, insisting that, technically, because Burns hadn’t won his belt outright from the retired Jim Jeffries, Johnson was a pretender to the crown. And so, Johnson later wrote, according to Ward, “[t]he hunt for a ‘white hope’ began.” Really, it was a comical affair, with Johnson making easy prey of all comers, so that the only possible solution was for Jim Jeffries to get back in the ring. It was his duty to the white race, wasn’t it? And, of course, there was money to be made.

The fight was supposed to take place in San Francisco, but when the California governor canceled it under pressure, promoter Tex Rickard moved it to Reno, Nevada. On a date dripping in symbolism—July 4, 1910—Johnson vs. Jeffries, aptly named “The Battle of the Century,” arrived. Let me cut to the chase: Jeffries was no match for Johnson, whose baffling style alternated from relaxed dancer to executioner in a split second and who, while handling Jeffries, even breaking his nose, smiled at the crowd despite the insults they spewed. However much they cried, “Don’t let the n—ger knock him out,” Johnson, in the 15th round, belted Jeffries to the mat repeatedly until it was over, as Ken Burns relates. Before the Civil War, Frederick Douglass had famously asked, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” To the descendants of slaves in 1910, it was a day to celebrate black America’s first undisputed heavyweight champ of the world.


Did the country accept it gracefully, celebrating the fact that the best man had won? Of course not! Riots ensued across the country, in the North and in the South, with untold victims. As Burns recounts, a throat was slashed here, a building was burned there—a volcano of venom spewed across the very same color line that Jack Johnson had traversed. And the controversy was only stoked further by the film footage of the fight, which whites vowed to block, as Theresa Runstedtler recounts in her 2012 book Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner.

Success and Scandal  

With the celebrity spotlight shining on Johnson like never before, his personal life became fodder for newspapers sniffing around for a scandal. If his opponents couldn’t beat him in the ring, they would try to take him down outside of it. There was no denying that “the Big Smoke” loved fast cars and fancy suits, and before settling in Chicago, he had rankled his neighbors by moving into an all-white section of Bakersfield, Calif. What really infuriated the white public, though, were Johnson’s public displays of affection with such white women as Hattie McClay and Belle Schreiber—one or another of whom seemed always to be on his arm.


But the trap was set for Johnson after he married a divorced white woman, Etta Duryea, in 1911. Despite mutual accusations of infidelity and an incident in which Johnson likely gave Duryea a serious beating out of jealousy, Johnson denied responsibility and Etta “told the admitting physician that she had hurt herself falling from a streetcar,” Ward writes. Worse, in 1912, just a few months after Duryea had committed suicide, Johnson was seen in public with another white woman, Lucille Cameron.

As a famous black man living in Chicago, widower to a white woman, with another young white woman (a former prostitute) on deck, Johnson embodied white America’s worst nightmare—interracial sexual relations and violence. The former of these fears had, in part, led Congress to pass the Mann Act of 1910, prohibiting the transportation of women and girls across state lines for “immoral purposes.” The break for prosecutors came when they found a willing complainant in Cameron’s mother. Only thing was, after Johnson was arrested in October 1912, he and Lucille busted up an already flimsy case by getting married.  


Lucille, on the occasion of their wedding, echoed Johnson’s avowal of “I am not a slave” and “have the right to choose who my mate shall be without the dictation of any man,” delivered at the Appomattox Club in Chicago in October. Lucille said, according to the Chicago Defender, “I am a free woman and have the perfect right to marry whom I am please.” And if the country was so concerned about stomping out interracial relations, she added, then “[w]hy don’t the United States government stop southern and northern white men as well from living and raising children by colored women out of wedlock; look in the south and see the advantage taken of the colored people. … I want my fellow citizens to know that I am still living in the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave.’ ” 

But the fix, you could say, was in: Luckett V. Davis, in his entry on Johnson in the American National Biography, describes what happened next: “A second Mann Act case was brought against Johnson; the key witness was Belle Schreiber, who had traveled with him as his companion for several years and had suffered ill treatment at his hands.” It was clear that prosecutors weren’t going to quit. At the trial in May 1913, Davis writes, “Johnson was found guilty and sentenced to a year in jail. With bond posted, he appealed, but soon afterward left the United States for England to avoid serving his sentence.” Perhaps the most telling statement of all came from the district attorney in Johnson’s case, who, as Burns has quoted, said afterward, “It was [Johnson’s] misfortune to be the foremost example of the evil in permitting the intermarriage of whites and blacks.”


In a speech before a Detroit YMCA, Booker T. Washington, with an eye on his white patrons, characteristically, let Johnson twist in the wind. As quoted in the Afro newspaper on Oct. 26, 1912, Washington said, “It is unfortunate that a man with money should use it in a way to injure his own people in the eyes of those who are seeking to uplift his race.” Not all African-American commentators, however, agreed. After Johnson was convicted, on July 5, 1913, the Chicago Defender published a front paged editorial titled “Jack Johnson is crucified for his race,” in which Dr. M.A. Majors argued, “Jack is a gentleman beside thousands of white men who will escape the horrors of the Mann Act simply because white jurors and white courts” will not convict a white man. 

On the lam in Europe, Johnson continued to box and had help along the way, we know, from a man we met earlier in this series, Frederick Bruce Thomas, “the Sultan of Jazz.” Eventually, though, the legal ordeal caught up with Johnson’s game inside the ring, and, as Burns has written, he “los[t] his title in Havana in 1915 to a much younger white opponent [Jess Willard] after a grueling 26-round fight in 100-degree-plus heat.” Johnson said later that he’d thrown the fight for money, but it didn’t matter. He was no longer the champ, and he remained a fugitive from the law until 1920, when, losing his protection in Mexico, he crossed back into the United States and from there was ordered to Leavenworth prison, eventually serving 366 days.


Davis recounts Johnson’s subsequent decline and fall:

“After being released from prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1921, Johnson fought occasionally, becoming more and more inept. In his last two appearances, in April and May 1928, he was knocked out by Bearcat Wright in Topeka, Kansas, and by Bill Hartwell in Kansas City. In 1924 he divorced Lucille Cameron and married his third white wife, Irene Pineau. In his remaining years he made his living by managing and training boxers, performing bit parts in plays and operas, and making personal appearances such as lecturing at Herbert’s Museum in Manhattan.”


In 1946, Jack Johnson was killed in a car wreck after furiously leaving a North Carolina restaurant where he had had to “sit in the back,” as Ward recounts. He was 68. At the time, the reigning heavyweight champ of the world was Joe Louis, another black man who had defeated “the great white hope” only to slide into heartache. A year later, Jackie Robinson would break into the major leagues.    

Gone but Not Forgotten

Fast-forward to this year’s selection for the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Poetry, Adrian Matejka, whose remarkable book of poems The Big Smoke has given new voice to Johnson. It fills out his persona as a devotee of opera, Shakespeare and, yes, women—a man who flashed his gold teeth and could, in a single smile, embody the good and evil of the greatest protagonists of ancient myths. Matejka’s signifying style is part of a long tradition about Johnson dating back to 1912, the same year, we learned in a prior column, the Titanic foundered in the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The nation’s black community, in street toasts and songs, said Johnson would have died on the ship, too, had the white captain not spotted him and barred him from entry for having skin the color of “coal.”  


In his poem “The Shadow Knows,” Matejka puts his finger right on the dilemma of Jackson’s American dream.

From day one, we aspire
to more than the average
Negro. None of that yassah,
boss & watermelon rind
smile for us. …  
We want peculiar & instinctive
satisfactions. We want to be
prize fighting’s main attraction:
the Heavyweight Champion
of the World. When we rise up,
the whole Negro race rises up
with us. When we get to the top
it’s just us.


To this day, Jack Johnson has yet to be pardoned for his “unforgivable blackness,” much less for his official crime. This, despite calls to have his conviction set aside, spearheaded by Burns and echoed by the likes of Sen. John McCain, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. Peter King.

But what no U.S. president can deny is the truth that unites Johnson to those black pugilists, such as Richmond and Molineaux, who went before him: Boxing is a brutal sport, but far less brutal than the racial environment in which “the Big Smoke” surged to the top of his sport. Isn’t it time the country declared its fight with this genuine hero of the early civil-rights movement—this tragic victim of the most blatant anti-black racism—over? 


As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.