Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas on March 31, 1878. His parents were formerly slaves, and he was the third born of his parents’ nine children.
Of these nine, Johnson was one was one of only five who would live to adulthood. The family lived in an integrated area of Galveston, and worked hard to make sure that their children were able to attend school. Johnson left home in his 1899 and headed out of Texas to attempt to break into boxing the industry.