October 16, 2021

Inside Boxer Jack Johnson’s 3 Interracial Marriages That Caused Great Controversy

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Jack Johnson was a trailblazer. However, the happiness he enjoyed via his enormous fame was not shared with his personal life. The boxer was involved in three interracial marriages, which stirred troubles and great controversy.

It is nearly unbelievable to comprehend that there was a fighter greater than Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, or Floyd Mayweather at their prime.

But after glancing through the accomplishments of Jack Johnson, fans of the sport, especially those of African descent, will appreciate and understand who this prominent figure was.

On the left: Boxer Jack Johnson with his wife Lucille Cameron on February 15, 1924. On the right: Jack Johnson and his wife Etta photographed in 1910. | Photo: Getty Images


His name was Jack Johnson and he was nicknamed "the Galveston Giant." Even though his build might have contributed to his nickname, Johnson's reputation and successes solidified the title.

He was born in Galveston, Texas, in 1878, and by 1908, Johnson assumed the throne of the heavyweight champion after a knock-out round with Tommy Burns, the reigning fighter at the time.

He established the ground-breaking record of becoming the first man of his race to win such a title. After the first win, he went on accumulating numerous successes and did not retire until age 50.

Jack Johnson, "the Galveston Giant", Heavyweight Champion of the World circa 1912| Photo: Getty Images


In total, he recorded 73 victories, 13 losses, ten draws, and five no contests. The heavyweight champion died in a ghastly motor accident in 1946 and was survived by his third wife.


Like most record breakers, life was not a bed of roses for Johnson, who was not only from a poor background but a minority racial group. He was born into a large family and was the son of former slaves.

From a young age, he was determined to chart a new course and rewrite history for his family. After spending a few years getting a formal education, Johnson dropped out to work physical jobs and support his family.


American heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson in action sparring | Photo: Getty Images

As a teenager, Johnson found himself in the company of men who did not mind placing bets on fights. He earned his first dollar after challenging a colleague and later advanced to making big bucks after facing the professional boxer, Bob Thompson.


The genesis of a new era ushered in new opportunities for Johnson to write his name on the world stage. Before then, he was prominent in the black boxing circuit, and without a doubt, believed he could assume the same in the company of other white fighters.

Jim F. Jeffries was the champion at the time, and even though he caught wind of a possible opponent, the white fighter did not think that it was worthy to engage with Johnson, and so did other white fighters.

Jack Johnson (R) knocks out Jim Jeffries, who had come out of retirement. The battle, lasting 15 rounds, was staged on July 4, 1910 | Photo: Getty Images


However, in 1908, after Tommy Burns succeeded Jeffries, he considered taking on the much referenced black fighter who was making waves among his fellow minorities. 

Burns had been guaranteed a huge chunk of money, about $30,000, to go up against Johnson. These men fought outside of Sydney, Australia, and the fight lasted for fourteen rounds, with the latter eventually declared as the winner.

This victory motivated Johnson to challenge the former champion, Jeffries. In 1910, the men went head to head in what is remembered to be "The Fight of the Century."

ack Johnson, U,S,A, the first black Heavyweight champion of the world, He beat Tommy Burns in Australia in 1908 for the title | Photo: Getty Images


After fifteen rounds, in the presence of nearly 30,000 guests, the black fighter was announced the victor. This consolidated his hold on the heavyweight title and upset the white boxing fans who were pained to watch a black man sit on the throne.


As established earlier, Johnson was a man ready to topple what appeared as the norm, and with his successes, he found himself offending the system and breaking most taboos.

Apart from the fact that he was on top of the sports, which was almost a way of taunting the ongoing white supremacy/dominance, he was romantically involved with white women, which stirred great controversies. 


Heavyweight Boxing Champ Jack Johnson | Photo: Getty Images

According to his autobiography, he had experienced heartbreaks in the past, during his time with black lovers, and vowed to date only white women.


This made him the most hated man in the nation at the time, he received death threats, and some Southern whites requested that he be lynched.

Johnson's first marriage was to Etta Duryea, a Brooklyn socialite. However, their marriage did not last as her husband abused her physically after alleged infidelity on her part, leading her into depression and later to commit suicide.

American boxer Jack Johnson hauls wood on his shoulder, early 1920s. | Photo: Getty Images


Wife number two was Lucille Cameron, who was a young prostitute from Milwaukee. He was later accused of kidnapping by Cameron's mother. Their marriage was rushed as the woman agreed to marry him to halt the chances of testifying against him in court.

This did not stop him from receiving a maximum sentence of one year. However, Johnson fled to Europe and later to Canada and Mexico to avoid serving his jail term.

It did not take long for Johnson to get weary from hiding, even though during his hideouts, he continued fighting. Seven years later, the first black heavyweight champion surrendered to the law.

American boxer Jack Johnson, the world heavyweight champion, is tagged with a forget-me-not during a 'Tag Day' sales benefit of the flowers for the Music Hall Ladies Guild Orphanage, early 1910s | Photo: Getty Images


As the whites had intended, his career, lifestyle, and fame declined. In the end, Cameron left her husband after his jail term. Sources confirmed that he was highly unfaithful.

By 1925, Johnson married another woman named Irene Pineau, who remained with him until 1946, when "The Galveston Giant" died. He was traveling through Franklinton, N.C. in a feat of rage after he was refused service at an all-white dinner. 

American boxer, Jack Johnson with his wife on 15th February 1924 | Photo: Getty Images



In 1915, Johnson lost the crown as the heavyweight legend; five years later, he went to jail. When he got out, he never set eyes on the championship, but he did participate as a professional until age 60.

After his death, he was laid to rest in Graceland Cemetery, North of Chicago. His widow said the kindest words at his funeral, which was not far from the truth. 

Portrait of American boxer Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world, circa 1910 | Photo: Getty Images

Despite his past struggles, Pineau chose to remember Johnson as a courageous man, unafraid of facing the stumbles the world had to offer and more concerned about making a difference. Many would agree with those words after reading the man's history.


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