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Possible pardon for Jack Johnson good news to woman keeping boxer’s legacy alive

Linda Haywood

Boxer Jack Johnson's great-great niece Linda Haywood hopes President Trump will pardon him. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times

Linda Haywood welcomes visitors to her tidy, red-brick Georgian, but only if they have an appointment, they can prove who they say they are and her hair is primped to perfection.

A gift of refreshments — “Pepsi-Cola. Bottles. Chilled, please.” — is also encouraged.

People who don’t follow the rules will go home disappointed.

But more will likely keep coming. Haywood predicts, in keeping with her oversized personality, that she’ll have hordes of reporters camped out on her South Side front lawn if President Donald Trump does what he said he might in a tweet last month: Pardon the man she says is her great-great-uncle, Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world.

“I was astonished, I was amazed, I was stupefied, I was speechless,” said Haywood, who agreed to talk only after she’d had a day to make herself look “fabulous.”

In his April 21 tweet, Trump said he got the idea for the pardon after speaking to actor Sylvester Stallone, best known for his “Rocky” boxing movies.

“His trials and tribulations were great, his life complex and controversial,” Trump said of Johnson. “Others have looked at this over the years, most thought it would be done, but yes, I am considering a Full Pardon!”

And shortly after that, the phone calls, the emails, the unannounced visits started — and haven’t stopped, Haywood said.

Johnson’s public rehabilitation is something Haywood has hoped for — and fought for — for many years.

“Living at a time when he did, when black people would be killed just for being black, he did not care. He was fearless,” Haywood said.

On that, almost everyone agrees.

The man who some have called the greatest boxer ever to enter the ring was born in Galveston, Texas, in 1878, the son of ex-slaves. He was often the last one on his feet, Johnson would later say, in a brutal spectacle in which black boys — with the promise of a fistful of coins — pummeled each other for the amusement of a crowd of white men.

Tall, quick and intelligent, Johnson soon developed into an exceptional fighter. More defensive than flashy, Johnson took on and beat black and white fighters alike.

The man writers of the day called the “Big Smoke” and the “Giant Ethiopian” eventually set his sights on the ultimate prize: the heavyweight championship of the world. But reigning world champion Jim Jeffries said he would never fight a black man for the title. Instead, Johnson battered Jeffries’ successor, Tommy Burns, taking the world title in 1908. Jeffries eventually came out of retirement, and Johnson beat him too, in 1910. The result led to nationwide race riots.

“Johnson was everything that a black man of his era was not supposed to be: outspoken, articulate, intelligent, powerful, wealthy, good-looking and charming,” wrote Ken Burns in 2004, in seeking a presidential pardon for Johnson, the focus of his documentary, “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.”

Johnson’s success brought money, which he spent freely on fast cars, tailored suits, gold caps for his teeth and women. His out-in-the-open taste for white women infuriated many in the Jim Crow era.

“I have the right to choose whom my mate shall be without the dictation of any man,” Johnson once said, according to the Burns documentary.

Linda Haywood has lots of old photos of boxing legend Jack Johnson. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times

By 1912, Johnson was living on the South Side of Chicago, where he’d bought his mother a house. That’s where federal prosecutors brought a charge of violating the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for “immoral” purposes. An all-white jury convicted him as charged. Johnson said he’d been framed.

Johnson spent seven years as a fugitive in Europe before returning to America and serving about a year in prison.

He died in 1946 in car crash in North Carolina.

Johnson is buried beneath a modest headstone in a family plot in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery.

Haywood said she first came to hear about her famous uncle when she was 12 years old living in public housing. She was goofing around, throwing punches, when a male relative approached and said, in a whisper, that her great-great-uncle has been a world champion.

“He floored me with that,” Haywood said.

She said her family, until that point, never talked about Johnson because they were ashamed of his prison record.

In 1912, while living on the South Side of Chicago, Jack Johnson was charged with violating the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for “immoral” purposes. An all-white jury convicted him. Johnson said he’d been framed. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times

Haywood said she instantly became fascinated with Johnson, “confiscating” a book about him from her local library in the late 1960s.

She has spent years, she said, telling anyone who would listen about the man whom the history books have wronged.

“People keep saying he beat his wife, he put her in the hospital,” Haywood said. “Where are the hospital records to support that? He was a black man beating a white woman. Why didn’t you lock him up?”

She said she’s a fan of Burns’ film but frustrated no one tried to interview her for the project.

Haywood said the film spurred her to be more vocal about Johnson.

“Let me just get on the roof tops, and shout it out to the world,” she said.

It’s clear Haywood, like her famous relative, enjoys the spotlight.

As she spoke last week, her husband, a retired electrician, watched a show about antique cars on his 65-inch TV. At one point, he fell asleep.

“He’s going to be a celebrity by default,” she said.

Jack Johnson

Linda Haywood said her family never used to talk about their famous ancestor, boxer Jack Johnson, because they were ashamed of his prison record. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times

Haywood goes to some lengths to prove her lineage, pulling out photocopies of various death certificates and burial records — some handwritten. She says one of Johnson’s sisters, Janie Johnson Rhodes, was her maternal great-grandmother. The associate director at Graceland confirmed last week that Haywood is “the next of kin” in charge of the Johnson family lot.

Trump isn’t the only high-profile figure on her side in the fight to restore Johnson’s reputation. Others include Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

“Johnson’s imprisonment forced him into the shadows of bigotry and prejudice, and continues to stand as a stain on our national honor,” McCain said last month.

Haywood said she was “very disappointed” that President Barack Obama passed up the opportunity to issue the pardon.

She admits she isn’t quite sure what’s behind Trump’s interest. In the end, she said, it doesn’t matter.

“I don’t care what his motives are. … If he signs that piece of paper, that’s all right with me. I couldn’t care less,” she said.

Last week, the White House had no comment when asked about Trump’s plans for Johnson.

Haywood winks and hints that she has some inside information on the matter. That’s all she’ll say, though.

If it happens, she’ll throw a big party, and then make a trip north to Johnson’s grave.

“I will tell him, ‘Uncle Jack, I have walked the last mile. Here is your victory,’” she said.

Contributing: AP