An island residence of heavyweight boxing great and Galveston native Jack Johnson burned on Friday and was left extensively damaged, Galveston Fire Department Chief Mike Wisko said.
The fire department received a call to 2827 Ave. K at 12:44 p.m., Wisko said.
“We found a very progressed fire, which is kind of unusual for the middle of the day in the middle of town,” Wisko said.
The house was being renovated and was missing a back wall, letting in a southeast wind that stirred up the fire, Wisko said. The unoccupied building sustained major damage, including a partial wall collapse and extensive water damage. The blaze was declared a defensive fire, meaning the structure was too unsound for firefighters to enter and was doused from the outside for several hours.
Seven trucks and 22 firefighters responded to the scene. The county fire marshal is investigating the cause of the blaze, Wisko said.
Standing by, watching firefighters douse the fire were cousins Eric Mills of Galveston and Sam Davis of Houston. Their grandfather formerly owned the house that Mills said was built in 1912. Johnson lived there before their grandfather purchased the house, Davis said.
Johnson’s boxing career began in Galveston. During his professional career, he fought 114 fights and won 80 matches, 45 by knockouts, according to boxing records. In 1908, he became the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world.
A bronze statue of Johnson stands in a small park at 2627 Ave. M, with a marker naming him the Galveston Giant.
He died in a car crash in 1946 in North Carolina and has been memorialized in books, song and films, including a two-part documentary by Ken Burns for his pioneering victory as a black man at the height of Jim Crow, for his athletic prowess and for the way he challenged racial codes of the day by consorting with and marrying white women, despite societal condemnation.
In May last year, more than 100 years after he was prosecuted under a racist law, more than 70 years after his death and after decades of lobbying by local people, national leaders and luminaries across the country, Johnson was declared no longer a convicted criminal.
President Donald Trump signed a pardon for Johnson, who was convicted under the Mann Act in 1913 for transporting a white woman across state lines.
It’s not clear who the house’s current owner is, but Davis said the house had been sitting there with “nothing going on” since 1991.
“Our grandfather found some things of Johnson’s, some boxing gloves and pictures and things, in the attic of the house, and gave them to the black museum,” Davis said.
At one point Friday, a possum was seen peering from the second floor on the open side of the house, attempting to escape the blaze. Firefighters called City of Galveston Animal Control, which reported late Friday afternoon the possum was “wet, alive and angry.”