Texas Ingenuity History


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Jack Johnson Breaks Barriers

When John Arthur Johnson was born on March 31, 1878, in Galveston, Texas, the Civil War had only been over a few years and African-Americans had few opportunities other than doing common labor. Starting at a young age, Jack (as he was called) went to work painting milk wagons, exercising horses, baking bread, unloading ships at the Galveston dock, and whatever odd jobs he could find.

When he took a job as a janitor at a local gym, the place intrigued him. He watched the others work out and then tried it himself. The exercises were exhilarating. Every work out technique he saw others doing, he learned and did himself. One particular activity at the gym that he admired was boxing. Soon, he knew that boxing was what he wanted to do.

Buying two pairs of gloves, he recruited local black friends to fight him. As a sparring partner with the other blacks, he entertained white spectators for donations. He quickly gained a reputation as the best black boxer in Galveston, but that title was less than what he wanted. While training with Joe Choynski, a professional boxer known as "The California Terror," the two were jailed in 1901 for boxing (which was illegal in Galveston) after Choynski defeated Johnson in a fight. Choynski continued training Jack while they were in jail and when they were released, Jack left the island in search of opportunity. Traveling around the country making a living taking on odd jobs, Johnson looked for opportunities to box. He fought anywhere there was a challenge: on ship docks, at circuses, in gyms. In 1897, Johnson made a decision. He would turn pro.

Jack Johnson

Prize fighter Jack Johnson, circa 1910.

(Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-91059.)

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