Boxer Jack Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion, winning the title in 1908. At that time racial segregation tightened its stranglehold on the American South; hence, Johnson’s skill as an unrepentant black who dominated white boxers was cause for much concern. Jack (John Arthur) Johnson (1878–1946) knocked out Tommy Burns on December 26, 1908, in Sydney, Australia, in the fourteenth round to become the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world. He lost only five of his first ninety-seven fights. Born in Galveston, Texas, Johnson was known as “Little Arthur” in his childhood. Because of his fearlessness, flamboyant style, and colorful life, he became one of the most reviled and hated men in America. Some experts called him the greatest fighter of the heavyweight class ever. His professional career, which included more than 125 fights, spanned more than thirty years; forty-four of his wins were by knockouts. Johnson did not have a blissful boxing career. He had difficulty getting a title fight despite an astounding record of 54 and 2 in official bouts. Once he did, and won, there was a hue and cry to find “The Great White Hope,” a white boxer who could win the title back. Boxing promoters settled on former champion Jim Jeffries, who had retired unbeaten four years earlier. Johnson faced Jeffries on July 4, 1910, at Reno, Nevada, in a scheduled forty-five-rounder called the “Fight of the Century”; the one-sided fight ended in the fifteenth round, when Jeffries went down three times. As news spread around the country, racial nerves were hit and riots and unrest ignited. Johnson lost his title in Havana, Cuba, in 1915, and continued to wander until 1920, when he returned to his homeland and spent close to a year in prison. Once released, he boxed sporadically, winning some and losing others. He also continued to perform as a vaudevillian, which he had begun years earlier to supplement his boxing income. In 1954 Johnson was elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame. He was made a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. Johnson’s story is told in the stage play and movie The Great White Hope.
Knocking out German Max Schmeling in a 1938 bout put Joe Louis in the spotlight as America’s first national black sports hero.