Jack Johnson Cigarette Cards

In honor of Juneteenth, our latest Treasure of the Month features one of the Rosenberg Library Museum’s newest acquisitions: a pair of cigarette cards featuring portraits of Jack Johnson, the first Black world heavyweight boxing champion.

 Jack Johnson Cigarette Cards
Cigarette card, 2024.005.1

Juneteenth: A Galveston Tradition

On June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Union General Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3, enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas and freeing all remaining enslaved people in the state. This event became the basis of an annual celebration of freedom and African-American culture, known as Juneteenth, and was officially declared a national holiday by President Biden in 2021.

Juneteenth has had a unique impact on Galveston both as a historical event and as a celebration of freedom and African-American culture. It created an environment in which Galveston institutions made advancements towards greater equality much earlier than many other cities in Texas. For example, the Rosenberg Library opened the Colored Branch of Rosenberg Library in 1905, and integrated the library in 1959, five years before any local public schools began to integrate in accordance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The fact that the library took initiative in making these moves reflects Galvestonians’ attitude regarding equality and inequality in the 20th century.

Additionally, while the Emancipation Proclamation did not solve the problem of racial discrimination, it did allow formerly enslaved people to create new opportunities for themselves. The island has been home to countless talented Black individuals through the centuries, from politically well-known figures like Jessie McGuire Dent and Norris Wright Cuney, to notable athletes like Jack Johnson.

 Jack Johnson Cigarette Cards
Cigarette card, 2024.005.2

Jack Johnson: The Galveston Giant

Jack Johnson (1878-1946), nicknamed “The Galveston Giant,” was born in Galveston in 1878. He first learned to box when he traveled to Dallas and New York to find work as a young man. In 1898, Johnson returned to Galveston and made his professional debut by winning a match against Charley Brooks.

Johnson won the titles of World Colored Heavyweight Champion in 1903 and World Heavyweight Champion in 1908. He held the world championship title until 1915.

Johnson faced racist press throughout his career, but his defeat of Tommy Burns, a white man, for world heavyweight champion ignited extreme racial animosity. In 1910, former undefeated heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries came out of retirement to challenge Johnson. Johnson successfully defended his title in the “Fight of the Century,” knocking Jeffries down twice for the first time in his career. Race riots broke out after the fight in more than 25 states and 50 cities, killing at least twenty people and injuring hundreds more.

To learn more about Jack Johnson, visit our “Faces and Places of Galveston” exhibit, located on the 4th floor of the Library in Trustees Hall.

 Jack Johnson Cigarette Cards
Photograph, 2023.005.1

Why Cigarette Cards?

From the 1870s to the 1940s, cigarette companies often included cardboard trading cards in their products to stiffen the packaging and advertise their brand. The cards were often printed as sets of 25-50 unique cards and featured a variety of subjects, such as popular actresses and models, athletes, military figures, animals, and much more. Collecting cigarette cards quickly became a popular hobby, until World War II when they stopped being printed due to rationing and the high cost of supplies.

The cards in our museum collection date from 1910 and are part of the “Champion Athlete and Prize Fighter Series,” issued by two American companies, Hassan Cigarettes and Mecca Cigarettes. Both cards in our collection have a full-color illustration of Jack Johnson on the front, and a short biography with information about his most important boxing matches through 1909 on the back. The “Fight of the Century” is not included in the list, which tells us the cards were printed sometime between October 16, 1909 and July 4, 1910.

 Jack Johnson Cigarette Cards
Reverse of cigarette card, 2024.005.1
 Jack Johnson Cigarette Cards
Reverse of cigarette card, 2024.005.2

The Library purchased these cards at auction as part of its ongoing efforts to preserve and display diverse stories within Galveston’s history. The fact that our island has kickstarted so many stories of incredible success, including Jack Johnson's undefeated talent, reflects the true meaning and influence of Juneteenth in Galveston's culture—having the opportunity to excel and be the best human you can be.

For the month of June 2024 only*, the Treasure of the Month is located on the 4th floor of Rosenberg Library in the Harris Gallery. It can be viewed during regular library hours, 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM Monday, Friday, and Saturday and 9:00 AM - 8:00 PM Tuesday through Thursday. For museum questions, call 409.763.8854 Ext. 125 or email museum@rosenberg-library.org. For press inquiries, contact the Communications Coordinator.

*The Treasure of the Month can usually be viewed on the 2nd floor of the Rosenberg Library in the Grand Hallway.

Past Treasures