Bill Kroger 0000-00-00 00:00:00
The Making of Jack Johnson A significant cultural event in American history happened when Jack Johnson was locked up in a jail cell with Joseph Choynski in Galveston in 1901. It was the genesis of not only Johnson’s career as one of the greatest fighters in America, but also an unlikely friendship. On Feb. 25, 1901, only about six months after the 1900 hurricane that devastated Galveston Island, an untrained, unskilled Johnson stepped into the ring to fight Choynski, a skilled veteran and one of the best heavyweight fighters of his era. Johnson was an African American; Choynski was Jewish. It was one of Johnson’s first professional fights, with racial overtones that would both promote and plague Johnson’s career. However, professional prizefighting was illegal in Texas at that time. Choynski knocked out Johnson in the third round. Immediately after, Texas Rangers arrested both fighters, charged them with the felony offense of prizefighting, and threw them in the Galveston jail, where they were to await the grand jury indictment. Bail was set at $5,000, a sum neither fighter could pay. Both fighters remained in jail while each filed writs of habeas corpus with the Galveston County District Court over the size of their bail. Henry Thomas, the sheriff, was sympathetic, and allowed the men to go home each night, so long as they returned to jail the next day. Reporting to jail each morning, Johnson and Choynski took advantage of the time together by sparring in the jail cell, attracting large crowds to watch. Over the next 24 days, the men became friends, and Choynski taught Johnson the skills and techniques needed to become a successful professional boxer. Years later, Johnson said that he learned how to become a great fighter during the month with Choynski in jail. Most of the Johnson/Choynski court records have disappeared. However, with assistance of the Galveston County district clerk, the Texas Court Records Preservation Task Force was able to find the case file containing the habeas petition that Choynski filed in an attempt to reduce his bail. The Task Force preserved that record, along with the Galveston County Criminal District Court minute book that records the various rulings by the district court on the habeas proceedings involving Johnson and Choynski during March and April of 1901. The Galveston County District Clerk’s Office also has the pertinent grand jury minute book. Choynski and Johnson appealed their habeas corpus writs to the Court of Criminal Appeals, which granted their writs and reduced their bail to $1,000 each.1 On March 22, 1901, the two boxers raised the amount needed for bail and were released from jail. Ultimately, the grand jury refused to indict both men, despite two requests by the district attorney, and the charges were dismissed. The Johnson/Choynski records are not the only reason the Galveston Criminal Court minute book is important. The minute book covers the time period when the 1900 hurricane destroyed the island. It shows that Galveston’s court system was up and running after only a few weeks. Unfortunately, many of the criminal cases were dismissed because the evidence or witnesses were missing. In some cases, the defendants were also dead. It’s a compelling record of one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. Johnson went on to become one the greatest athletes of the 20th century. He was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world for many years and challenged American attitudes about race. He paved the way for athletes from Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson to Michael Jordan. But Johnson’s story began in that Galveston County jail cell with a friendship forged between two men from different backgrounds under difficult circumstances. By Bill Kroger Notes 1. Ex Parte Choynski, 61 S.W. 391 (1901). In connection with this article, a search was made for the Choynski/Johnson files with the Court of Criminal Appeals. Those files are missing.
Published by State Bar of Texas. View All Articles.