Famed fighter little remembered in Galveston


Sam Collins III spoke about the landmark fight -- the one that occurred on July 4, 1910, when Jack Johnson, the first African-American to hold the boxing world heavyweight championship, shocked the world.

The "Galveston Giant" beat the previously undefeated and former heavyweight champ Jim Jeffries -- "The Great White Hope," who came out of retirement to challenge Johnson in the Fight of the Century and reclaim the prize title for white America.

Collins sighed. He wanted to be happy and excited about a great moment not only in African-American history, but also in Galveston and U.S. history.

He couldn't. Collins could find only words of frustration.

"Galveston has failed to embrace Jack Johnson, its native son," he said. "I don't know why, and I wish I had an answer. But it's hard."

One hundred years later, after Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, the Civil Rights Act and desegregation, Galveston still wrestles with Johnson. The city did not coordinate an official event to commemorate the achievement of its most famous athlete.

Collins' group, African American Heritage, along with Galveston Historical Society and the Jack Johnson Foundation, organized the island's sole event: a two-hour screening of "Unforgivable Blackness."

Reno, Nev., the city 2,000 miles away where Johnson defeated Jeffries, organized a three-day extravaganza for the 100th anniversary of the fight. Events range from lectures to galas to commemorations to live boxing events to exhibits.

"That's sad to hear, because Galveston should be proud of Johnson," Jeffrey Lane, organizer of the Reno events, said. "But, in some ways, unfortunately, I'm not surprised."

Johnson inspires and polarizes. He crossed racial and social barriers most never thought possible.

Not only did he win the white man's prized title 39 years before Robinson crossed baseball's color barrier, Johnson earned more than $100,000. Some estimate that would total about $40 million in today's economy.

And he did this all in the face of racism and death threats. After Johnson took the heavyweight title in 1908, the white world, incited by famed author Jack London, called for a "Great White Hope," which inspired the Fight of the Century.

"Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his Alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Jack Johnson's face," London wrote. "Jeff, it's up to you. The White Man must be rescued."

Johnson embarrassed Jeffries. The former champion retired after 15 rounds and said: "I could never have whipped Johnson at my best. I couldn't have hit him. No, I couldn't have reached him in 1,000 years."

But those looking for a diplomat, a peacemaker, someone to quell racism or a man to improve the standing of African-Americans did not -- or will not -- find it in Johnson. He lived life on his terms, which offended many people.

Johnson owned a Chicago night club, acted, drove ostentatious sports cars, bragged about dating white women, reportedly walked a leopard and showed off his gold teeth.

"My grandma -- she claimed to be related to Johnson, but I can't prove it -- always told me what a great fighter he was," Todd Scott, a Houston resident, said. "But she also used to tell me how well-dressed he was and how loose he was with the girls."

Johnson never shied away from the spotlight, boasting about his skill to anyone who would listen. He was brash and crass, proud and arrogant.

"Before I entered the ring, I was certain I would be the victor," Johnson told the press after the Fight of the Century. "I never changed my mind at any time ... Jeffries' blows had no steam behind them, so how could he hope to defeat me?"

The self-importance insulted his contemporaries and inspired hatred. Ultimately, the federal government convicted Johnson for violating the Mann Act -- transporting white women across state lines for immoral purposes -- in 1912.

Though most historians dispute the validity of Johnson's arrest, he spent 10 months in prison after fleeing to Europe.

"He was far from a perfect man," Lane said. "And I think just like now, a lot of people have trouble separating what he was able to accomplish versus his character."

Lane and Collins argue that most modern athletes society chooses to memorialize had flaws. Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle lived lavishly and drank. Ali never shied away from boasting about his skills and dodged the draft.

Those heroes have awards, museums, buildings, statues, leagues, stadiums and streets named in their honor.

Although the Jack Johnson Foundation has worked tirelessly since 1984 to rally around the boxer, Johnson remains noticeably absent. His name is on part of 41st Street, in the middle of a residential neighborhood, hardly a hometown welcome for a tourism-centered island that uses its proud history as a selling point.

Signs explaining important events and people dot The Strand, Galveston's downtown. The impact of the Moody and Sealy families is well documented.

Even Jean Lafitte, a pirate, occupies a niche in Galveston's public space and collective memory. Markers tell of Lafitte's conquests, while one tour company offers a Lafitte ghost tour.

"He deserves more," said Casey Greene, head of special collections at Rosenberg Library in Galveston. "To me, the greatest lesson of Jack Johnson is to be true to oneself, no matter the odds, your goal or the opposition. That's not just a Galveston or African-American or Texas lesson. It should be for everyone."

The island is not alone in its struggles with one of the greatest boxers of all time. Congress passed a resolution urging a posthumous pardon for Johnson, but Barack Obama, the nation's first African-American president, has yet to act.

The Texas Black Sports Hall of Fame has not inducted Johnson. Daniel J. Kelley, a columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer, wrote an article in April 2009 comparing Johnson to mob boss Al Capone. He called Johnson's conduct odious, debauched and egregious.

"It's not just Galveston," said Kim Collins, president of the Jack Johnson Foundation. "But this is our greatest athlete ever. He wasn't perfect, but he changed history right here. Some people -- for whatever reason -- don't see that."

The debate is nothing new. In fact, it's as old as the Galveston Giant.

The day after Johnson defeated Jeffries, The Daily News described the scene on the island as residents awaited the results of the Fight of the Century.

"Jeffries men predominated, but Johnson, too, had his admirers in the crowd, and they were not all men of his own color, either," the story said.

The Daily News ran eight articles in the 12-page July 5, 1910, edition. It includes the listing of all the race riots that erupted across the nation. There was no report on Galveston.

Three Johnson stories made the front page. One by London, who called for Jeffries to fight, reads, "Golden Smile of Negro in Evidence" with the subhead "Negro Plays with Opponent."

Yet even London mustered a backhanded compliment toward the champion.

"And where now is the champion who will make Johnson extend himself, who will glaze those bright eyes, remove that smile and silence that golden repartee?" London asked.

Perhaps Johnson has finally found a challenge: history. It just came from outside the ring.

Copyright © 2021 KTRK-TV. All Rights Reserved.