The first African American to win the world heavyweight championship, Jack Johnson (1878–1946) was the preeminent American sports personality of his era. Holder of the title from 1908 to 1915, Johnson continued to box professionally until he was in his 60s. His 1910 victory over the formerly undefeated champion James J. Jeffries in "The Fight of the Century" triggered race riots across the country, and racial bias fueled the clamor for his defeat by a "Great White Hope." Johnson was a cultural lightning rod whose professional success and lavish lifestyle attracted both admiration and envy. In this witty and sophisticated memoir, he recounts without bitterness the prejudice, controversies, and scandals that dogged his public and private lives.
Johnson was well known for his exploits beyond the boxing world, and he offers vivid accounts of his international adventures as a bullfighter, race car driver, cabaret entertainer, and spy. His outrageous feats include rescuing a passenger train from murderous bandits in Mexico, chasing a kangaroo across the Australian outback, walking away from five fiery car crashes, and surviving revolutions in Spain, Brazil, Cuba, and elsewhere. The only edition of Johnson's autobiography currently in print, this volume features 16 full-page illustrations and an introductory article by Damon Runyon.
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About the Author
Jack Johnson (1878–1946) was the first African American heavyweight boxer, holding the title from 1908 to 1915. His 1910 victory over the formerly undefeated champion James J. Jeffries in "The Fight of the Century" triggered race riots across the country. Johnson continued to box professionally until he was in his 60s.
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I Take My Pen In Hand
My name is familiar to a great many people chiefly because I have held the heavyweight boxing championship of the world, and because for more than a quarter of a century I have figured prominently in the making of world ring history. On more than one occasion I have been the central character in sensational episodes which stirred the interest and curiosity of the public. But I am not writing this history of my life — full of experiences and adventures as it is — because of these facts.
On the contrary, in looking back over the years of my tumultuous career, I am astounded when I realize that there are few men in any period of the world's history, who have led a more varied or intense existence than I. My life, almost from its very start, has been filled with tragedy and romance, failure and success, poverty and wealth, misery and happiness. All these conflicting conditions that have crowded in upon me and plunged me into struggles with warring forces have made me somewhat of a unique character in the world of today, and the story of the life I have led may therefore not only contain some interest if told for its own sake, but may also shed some light on the life of our times.
Quick changes have come into my life on numerous occasions. I have been tossed from one extreme to the other within a few hours. Sometimes I found myself in the midst of disaster and of ten I arose to unexpected heights of affluence, power and prominence. Many, many times fortune has virtually dropped into my hands and as many times it has slipped magically from my grasp.
I have attained the peaks of victory in gruelling fights with men as eager, as ambitious, as alert and as strong as I. With these victories generally came great sums of money, sometimes almost more than I ever dreamed of possessing. I was surrounded by countless admiring friends all intent on acclaiming me the greatest in my line; all eager to shout my praises; all striving for my esteem and for my bounty. By a sudden flip of fortune I have seen these friends melt away. But there have been many who have proved staunch throughout the years; who have shared with me in my successes and victories and who have suffered with me in the moments of failure, disappointment and bitterness.
I have known the tremendous exaltation of victory in the ring, in love, in business and in controversies of all kinds, and I have been cast down into the despair that sometimes comes with failure. I have traveled in nearly every country of the world and wherever I have gone I have had adventures that men of my race and nation have never had. I have mingled with notable people of every land. I have been with kings and queens; monarchs and rulers of nations have been my associates. In all the great gathering places of the world where the elite of every nation have met and are meeting, I have enjoyed the distinction of being a celebrity pointed out over all others.
In my life there have been many women, and with women there has come great happiness and also grief and tragedy. Women have come into my life and gone out of it leaving memories, many of which I treasure and many of which I would forget if I could. However, these women whom I have known and loved have been salient factors in my life. They have been the inspiration that urged me to strive for the uppermost places; they have been the cause of situations which turned the eyes of the world upon me, some merely gleaming with morbidness, others flashing condemnation and hate.
I have had my innings with the law. I know the bitterness of being accused and harassed by prosecutors. I know the horror of being hunted and haunted. I have dashed across continents and oceans as a fugitive, and I have matched my wits with the police and secret agents seeking to deprive me of one of the greatest blessings man can have — liberty. And after I had eluded them, after I had spent months in fighting for my cherished freedom and enjoying it at a dearly purchased price, I voluntarily relinquished it and surrendered myself, knowing that I should have to enter prison.
In my fight for my freedom I felt that whatever my conduct had been which led to accusations against me and conviction, it had been no worse than that of thousands of others. I felt that I had committed no heinous crime and that because of my color, perhaps, and because of prejudices and jealousies I was being persecuted and prosecuted. However, after months abroad, always alert lest I should be led into some trap that would mean loss of my freedom, I decided that I would return to my native country, submit to the demands of the law, and clear my "debt to society."
It was this desire to return to my own people and to again look on scenes that I loved and cherished that made my fight with Willard in Cuba, as far as I was concerned, merely an incident, a step in the direction of the goal toward which my heart led me — my home. In order to return to this home and ultimately resume my activities among those who meant most to me I was willing to make any sacrifice. This desire to wipe out prejudices against me and to still criticism of my conduct included my willingness to permit Willard to acquire the heavy-weight championship of the world and my consent to go to prison.
Having disclaimed my intention to write this record of my life because of my attainments in the prize ring or because of the prominence I have achieved in sensational news stories, I wish to go a little further and deny also that I am engaging in this sketch of my life for the purpose of def ending myself against charges that were brought against me. I am not attempting this enterprise to explain and excuse my faults and mistakes, nor to win sympathy and smooth over the rough places in my life. On the contrary, I feel that the story of my life is one that will prove interesting and entertaining to my readers as the story of a man, and that it will not be without good results. I am not pointing out any morals, yet when one suffers the inevitable consequences that ensue when the wrong course is chosen or mistakes are made and frankly admits and describes these mistakes and their results, surely it will prove of some benefit if it aids others to avoid similar mistakes and the attending unhappiness and disappointments.
I have no quarrel with fate, nor do I cling to the absurd belief that fate has set any special mark upon me. Yet fate must have intended me for adventures and experiences that do not fall to the lot of the average man. These adventures began early in my life and have crowded upon me fast and furiously. I cannot say that I deliberately planned or sought them. Throughout the half century of my life, events have whirled about me in an amazing manner and either engulf ed me or lifted me with scarcely any effort or thought on my part.
Of course I had the dreams and desires that are common to youth, but never in the wildest moments of my boyhood imagination did I vision myself the champion fighter of the world, and the first man of my race ever to attain that distinction. Never did I imagine myself in the picturesque costume of a Spanish matador, a victor in the bullfighting arena surrounded by cheering thousands in the gala attire of the festival in historic Barcelona. How incongruous to think that I, a little Galveston colored boy should ever become an acquaintance of kings and rulers of the old world, or that I should number among my friends some of the most notable persons of America and the world in general! What a vast stretch of the imagination to picture myself a fugitive from my own country, yet sought and acclaimed by thousands in nearly every nation of the world! What an unusual circumstance that while I feared to return to my own country and was a voluntary exile, one of the most notorious revolutionary leaders of Mexico — Villa — was making frantic efforts to finance my return to the Western hemisphere and was attempting to stage in Mexico the championship fight between myself and Willard. How utterly fantastic would ·have been the thought that I should some day be plunged into romances and love with white women in defiance of a treasured and guarded custom. How far removed from my thought was the possibility that tragedy would creep into my life — the tragedy of a prison term in one instance and the death by suicide of one whom I greatly loved in the other.
These are but a few of the unusual events that have come into my life. There are countless others, because I have lived rapidly, intensely, eagerly. I do not recall and write of these things in a boastful spirit, because some of them bring sad memories and arouse regrets; but they have happened and they must be told if one proposes an accurate and candid biography. Of many things I would rather not write for they stir latent sorrows; others, of course, give me cause for pride. There are pleasant topics, too, of which I wish to write, because, happily, my life has not been altogether filled with seriousness and tragedy.CHAPTER 2
As I reflect on the very first adventure of my life, it strikes me as full of humor now. At the time of its occurrence, however, it was painfully serious. One of my earliest ambitions was rather a strange one, and, like many others of my younger years, bore no relation to the course that eventually marked my life. That ambition was to see Steve Brodie, the man who made himself famous by leaping from Brooklyn bridge. Why this fancy seized me I do not know. I was twelve years old at the time and for a boy of that age living in Galveston, Texas, it was no easy matter to arrange a meeting with the daring New York man. From the Texas town to New York was a long way, especially for a youngster without funds and, as I recall it, neither my father nor other relatives were sufficiently interested in my whim to finance a trip to New York. This did not discourage me. I had determined to see Brodie and made several ineffectual attempts to depart from Galveston.
I spent more than a week trying to find a train out of the railroad yards. There were strings of box cars at my disposal and many times, seeing a train of cars moving in the direction which I believed would take me to New York, I hid myself in one of them and settled down for my long journey. When the cars were being shunted about the yards I thrilled with the thought that I was speeding toward the home of Brodie. I rode what seemed many hours in this way and when I imagined that Galveston was far behind me and ventured to peep from my hiding place, I usually found that I merely had been riding about the yards, and when I supposed that probably I was nearing some northern city I was only at some familiar street crossing.
Uncounted times I was driven from the cars by railroad men and some of them were not very gentle in the manner in which they urged my departure from side-door Pullmans. Many of them used their feet in speeding me on my way and I nursed numerous bruises and sore spots. These failures to find my way out of the railroad yards and the painful contact with the heavy ,shoes of switch crew members did not lessen my desire to make the acquaintance of Brodie. I continued to haunt the railroad yards and to study other methods of reaching New York. Finally I succeeded in stealing aboard a steamship which I believed was bound for New York. Instead its destination was southward. At Key West, however, my journey was rudely interrupted when I was put off the boat. I ·was penniless, friendless and hungry. It was necessary for me to earn some money so I became a sponge fisherman and incidentally the prey of sharks which infested the waters in which we carried on our search for sponges.
Almost daily our small boats were attacked by the sharks, which was a terrifying experience for me, and one evening when alone in a sailboat, a monster shark 23 feet long attacked me. All I had with which to defend myself was sponge nets and with these I put up a frantic battle, the outcome of which seemed overwhelmingly in the shark's favor, and as the combat went on I became convinced that Steve Brodie was going to be denied the pleasure of a visit from me. By some miracle I managed to escape the jaws of the monster until companions came to my rescue and killed my enemy, but not until after my boat had been almost capsized several times.
Safe from the shark, I resumed my plans to visit Brodie and after several weeks as a sponge fisherman, I found an opportunity to stow myself away on a boat going to New York. My presence aboard was soon discovered and I was delegated to assist one of the cooks, my occupation being that of potato peeler. I whittled many miles of potato peelings probably in a manner not sufficiently artistic to please the cook, for he treated me cruelly and lost no opportunity to inflict severe bodily punishment upon me in addition to the arduous work of peeling potatoes. One day he beat me unmercifully and I ran from the hold of the vessel stinging with his blows and so frightened that I threatened to leap overboard. In this foolish attempt I was stopped by passengers on the boat, who, learning of the cruelties to which I had been subjected, made up a purse for me which enabled me to pay my fare to New York. Other kindnesses were showered upon me by the passengers and finally I reached New York in a fairly prosperous and sound condition. But to the desire to see Brodie had been added another determination — and that was to find the cook who had abused me and wreak vengeance upon him. I promised myself that I would seek him out when my physical growth warranted it and give him a sound thrashing, and for twenty years I went about with that plan in mind, always looking for the cook. Eventually my anger faded and as more important business engaged my attention the smarting of the injuries he had inflicted on me was forgotten. But I have never quite given up the hope of some day meeting my taskmaster of the ship's hold.
Once I was in New York, however, I lost no time in hunting up Steve Brodie. I began by asking the first person who would listen to me after I had landed. To this stranger I addressed my eager inquiry.
"Where is Steve Brodie?" I asked excitedly. He did not know, so I went about firing the question at all who would pause long enough to hear me. I did not so much as provide myself with food or shelter, so determined was I to pursue the quest for Brodie. And it was successful — more successful that I had ever anticipated, for I found at least twenty-five Steve Brodies.
Those to whom I addressed my inquiries, many of them at least, were so interested that they of ten replied, "That's him right over there," pointing out some man loitering on the corner, or perhaps dashing along the street in a carriage. I took their replies seriously, and on every occasion made daring attempts to make the acquaintance of the man who had been pointed out to me as my hero and idol. More than once I endangered my life by darting across streets unmindful of the threatening traffic, only to find my man had disappeared, or, if I found him, to be met with an angry scowl and a sharp rebuff.
"No, I am not Steve Brodie. Get along with you," I was threatened. On two or three occasions, those I addressed admitted they were Steve Brodie, which lent me a temporary thrill, and a momentary feeling of satisfaction that my life's ambition had been realized. But on each occasion, I learned, to my bitter disappointment, that had been the victim of practical jokers.
Steve Brodies were beginning to fill my life. I met them at every turn. They went by me in long processions. I dreamed of them when I slept, and day after day I met new Steve Brodies. The disappointments, though, only served to sharpen my determination. I went about hungry and footsore searching for Steve Brodie. So important to me was this self-created mission, that I had made no effort to obtain employment. That I was out of funds did not matter. I ate and slept where and when I could and continued the search. It had one outstanding result. It led to my acquaintance with the be-derbied and box-coated Chuck O'Connor, one of New York's most picturesque characters, dubbed the "mayor of the Bowery," the ruler of the toughs and down-and-outs, the acquaintance and friend of many notable people, and a political power of considerable magnitude during his reign.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "My Life in the Ring & Out"
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Ed. W. Smith...1
Foreword by J. B. Lewis...2
Keeping Pace with Jack Johnson by Tad...11
Jack Johnson Could Fight...by Damon Runyon...14
My Husband by Mrs. Jack Johnson...16
I. I Take My Pen in Hand...21
II. A Stowaway...27
III. Breaking In...37
IV. Fighting to the Top...56
V. Romances and Regrets...70
VII. The World Through Prison Bars...123
VIII. Adventures on Highways and Byways...140
IX. Chasing the Champion...155
X. The Great Jeffries Bows...169
XII. The Frame-Up for Freedom...197
XIII. Reflections on Life and on Living...204
XIV. Looking at Life at Fifty...228
AppendixMy Fighting LifeA Chronology...257