Dorothy Cross, who said she was a great-niece of heavyweight great Jack Johnson and was part of a successful effort to clear the late boxer of a racially tinged conviction, has died at 88, according to her daughter Linda E. Bell Haywood.
Ms. Cross — believed to have been Johnson’s oldest living relative — often told stories about his flamboyance, prodigious appetite and largesse toward relatives in Chicago, where he bought a mansion for his mother at 3344 S. Wabash.
The longtime South Side resident died Feb. 3 at a ManorCare facility in Oak Lawn.
Ms. Cross had dementia. But Haywood said that when she informed her mother last May that President Donald Trump, who also had heard from Sylvester Stallone on the matter, issued a posthumous pardon for the boxer, “She could still understand. She nodded her head and smiled.
“She was so proud he was her great-uncle,” her daughter said.
Before Ms. Cross’ cognitive problems began to take hold around 2007, “She would always ask me: Are you working on the Jack Johnson thing?’ ” Haywood said.
That would be the family’s effort to clear the name of the boxer. In 1913, a white jury convicted him on a federal charge of transporting a woman across state lines for “immoral” purposes. Newspapers called him a “white slaver,” and the prosecutor said: “It was his misfortune to be the foremost example of the evil in permitting the intermarriage between whites and blacks. Now, he must bear the consequences.”
Johnson fled to Europe but later returned to the United States and served about a year in prison. He died in a car crash in 1946.
The first African-American heavyweight champion, Johnson ruled the ring from 1908 to 1915. In an era when being outspoken and flamboyant could get a black man lynched, he refused to cloak his pride, pugilistic skills or wealth. He enjoyed furs and fast cars, and he dated and married white women and opened a “black-and-tan” Chicago nightclub at which people could freely mingle regardless of race.
The more he flouted authority, the more he was demonized by white society.
Ms. Cross was the granddaughter of Johnson’s sister, Janie Johnson Rhodes, who is sometimes referred to in records as Jennie Johnson Rhodes, Haywood said. Both are buried at Graceland Cemetery on Chicago’s North Side.
If the family ever needed help, Ms. Cross “said that her grandmother would get a telegram to him, and my mother said he would send them money,” Haywood said. When rent cost around $20 a month, Johnson would advance them $200, she said: “He would pay their bills, he would give them money and buy them clothes and shoes.”
Ms. Cross also remembered the champion had a great appetite, sometimes having half a dozen pork chops at a time, her daughter said.
Young Dorothy grew up around 62nd and Vernon and went to Burke grade school and Englewood High School. She worked for the Spiegel catalog company and as a clerk for the federal government and the Chicago Board of Education.
Her mother Luella Rhodes Cross was born in Johnson’s hometown of Galveston, Texas, from which he got his nickname — the “Galveston Giant.” Her father David Aaron Cross was a ship worker from Montgomery, Alabama, Linda Haywood said.
During the Great Depression, “She talked about her grandmother Janie, Jack Johnson’s sister. She would bake pies and sell pies for 50 cents, and she would do laundry to get by.”
Ms. Cross is survived by another daughter, Constance Hines, and 10 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren, Linda Haywood said.
Visitation will be from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at Southwest Memorial Chapel, 7901 S. Komensky. Visitation will be at the chapel from 10:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. Monday, followed by a service there at 11 a.m. Monday.
Contributing: Stefano Esposito