Galveston's Jack Johnson:
Flourishing in the Dark
N THE LATE 1920S THE KING OF THE AFRICAN NATION OF SWAZILAND
told a friend that he knew the names of only two people in the
western world-Marcus Garvey, the black nationalist, and Jack John-
son, the boxer. This testimony illustrates the hold Johnson had on his
age. He held the heavyweight championship from 1908 until 195,
and he was arguably the greatest fighter ever to win that title. But to
say he was just a boxer would be quite misleading; Johnson exerted
as much influence on his time as Booker T. Washington or W. E. B.
Du Bois did. As a black man who dared to defeat white fighters and
marry white women, his life was well publicized. While other black
leaders preached harmony and accommodation, his actions repre-
sented conflict and disorder. Eventually the United States government
misused the Mann Act against Johnson, and he was forced to flee the
country. But what he represented did not end when he fled to Europe.
His emancipated life style influenced blacks from his day until our
own. Indeed, black and white liberals in the 1960s portrayed Johnson
in plays and history books as the first truly free American black man.
He was, to understate the case, an unusual man. Perhaps the most
unusual aspect of his life was that he was not born and raised in the
North. Rather, his entire early life was spent in the port city of Gal-
veston. It was there that he learned to box; there that he learned about
race relations, which would make him fight for the remainder of
No one thought of holding church services in Galveston that Sunday.
The few churches left standing were empty. Even the priests and
ministers had better places to be. The winds that had swept along the
Texas Gulf Coast on Friday, September 7, 1900, hit Galveston Island
in the early hours of Saturday. They blew with greater force as the day
*Randy Roberts is assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University.
1David Cronon, Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro
Improvement Association (Madison, Wisc., 1955), 207; Al-Tony Gilmore, Bad Nigger!
The National Impact of Jack Johnson (Port Washington, N.Y., 1975); Howard Sackler,
The Great White Hope (New York, 1968).
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 87, July 1983 - April, 1984. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117150/. Accessed May 19, 2013.