The Thanksgiving an imprisoned Jack Johnson fought two men at Leavenworth

Originally published on ESPN’s

The warden at Leavenworth Federal Prison had scheduled the fights to start at 3 in the afternoon. But guests started arriving at noon and officials struggled to find enough seats to accommodate the crowd of 2,000, including 300 reporters, state officials and other notables.

The rest of the crowd was made up of prisoners dressed in their usual striped outfits, who, after eating Thanksgiving dinner, were led out to the yard by guards and armed soldiers. A band made up of inmates played while snipers and cameras looked down on the specially constructed outdoor boxing ring. The former kept watch while the latter filmed the momentous event. It was the first time in years that Jack Johnson — Inmate #15461 — would box on U.S. soil.

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Most Americans hadn’t seen Johnson since he fled the country seven years earlier. When he fought on that Thanksgiving afternoon in 1920, Johnson was 43 and at least a decade past his athletic prime. But he was always more than a boxer. The first African-American heavyweight champion and a man unafraid to cross racial lines in his romantic life, Johnson embodied the country’s anxieties over race. His success prompted a backlash from people as high as former President Theodore Roosevelt, who advocated for boxing’s banishment, to those who invited Johnson to Mississippi to show him their brand of hospitality.

In 1913, Johnson was convicted under the Mann Act for allegedly transporting a white woman across state lines for immoral purposes. During the trial in Chicago, protesters hanged Johnson in effigy. A dummy with its face blackened with paint swung from a tree and included a placard reading “This is what we will do for Jack Johnson.” Three weeks later, a group in Midland, Texas, sent a letter to the prosecuting attorney, informing him that if he killed Johnson, they’d contribute $100,000 for his defense. When rumors spread of Johnson’s assassination — either by a white woman or her relatives, depending on the version — several newspapers published regrets that the boxer remained alive. When a reporter informed Johnson of the rumor, he replied, “Do I look dead?”

Eight years later, he was in Leavenworth, still alive. Johnson entered the ring that day wearing a skullcap and bathrobe while the prison band played and inmates cheered. It was likely the first time most people at a Johnson fight had rooted for him. But despite all the people there, his wife, Lucille, the one person who’d always cheered for Johnson, was missing. “Sorry you can’t come to see me,” Johnson wrote her in a telegram, “but you will understand — no ladies admitted.”

Johnson planned to fight twice that day. In the weeks beforehand, he relied on his wife to send along supplies: boxing shoes sized 10-E, or “10 half D,” and 5-ounce boxing gloves. For his training, he asked her to send arm bracelets to “pull against horses.” They communicated through long letters and telegrams, and Johnson ended his correspondence each time with a loving phrase: “Love and kisses to you,” “Best love for you,” “Love with kisses.” Their love was strong, although they had a complicated relationship — to say the least.

Lucille, who was white, was at the center of what landed Johnson in prison. When they first met, she was 18 and, depending on the source, may have been a prostitute. He was 35 and widowed. Soon after they met, her mother demanded police rescue Lucille from Johnson, who she claimed had abducted her daughter. It didn’t matter that Lucille repeatedly mentioned she loved Johnson and planned to marry him. Authorities and her mother dismissed those claims as lunacy. Lucille’s mother would later claim that she’d rather see her daughter “spend the rest of her life in an insane asylum than see her the plaything of a n—–.”

Police arrested and charged Johnson with violating the Mann Act and raided his Chicago nightclub in search of white slaves. They also arrested Lucille, hoping to use her as a witness against Johnson, but also out of worry she’d run away and marry him. Authorities released Lucille only after her mother promised to take her from Chicago. Lucille quickly ran back to the city and married Johnson in a ceremony at his house filled with what one newspaper described as “color-blind kisses.” The case against him collapsed until authorities found another woman to testify against Johnson. During the second trial, an all-white, all-male jury convicted Johnson after deliberating for 90 minutes. The judge sentenced him to a year and a day in prison.

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“This defendant is one of the best-known men of his race,” the judge explained during sentencing, “and his example has been far-reaching, and the court is bound to consider the position he occupied among his people. In view of these facts, this is a case that calls for more than a fine.” Johnson and his wife fled the country.

In his first fight that Thanksgiving Day, Johnson toyed with his African-American opponent, Frank Owens, a modestly talented pro from Chicago and a friend of Johnson’s who had come down for the exhibition. He knocked Owens down 12 times before ending the fight in the sixth round with a left hook to his jaw. Afterward, Johnson stood in the ring and rested a few minutes before facing his second opponent.

It was no more than 40 degrees out — average for that time of year in northeastern Kansas. As he told his wife in one of their many prison telegrams, “weather doesn’t bother me.” By that point, compared with everything that had occurred, whether it was cold or hot must have felt trivial.

When Johnson chose self-exile, he and his wife traveled across Europe and Latin America for seven years. In the nine months before arriving at Leavenworth, Johnson was a guest of Mexican President Venustiano Carranza. This was the same Carranza who in 1914, when the Mexican Revolution had devolved into civil war, threatened to capture and turn Johnson over to the United States if he set foot in the country. The threat came after Carranza’s foe, Pancho Villa, attempted to increase his war chest by hosting a fight between Johnson and Jess Willard in Ciudad Juárez. But with Johnson unable to arrive safely, promoters moved the fight to Cuba, where Willard defeated Johnson on April 5, 1915.

The symbolism of Willard, the latest Great White Hope, standing over a beaten Johnson wasn’t lost on anyone. That picture became a common decoration in speakeasies across the United States. Johnson would later claim to have intentionally lost to Willard, saying representatives of the Justice Department had promised that if he lost, they’d be lenient on his prison sentence. Whether anyone made that promise is unknown, but no leniency was granted and Johnson remained in exile, eventually landing in Mexico.

For much of their history, Mexico and the United States have had a contentious relationship. So it wasn’t surprising that the Mexican government saw Johnson as a victim of the American justice system and embraced him as a brother fighting against oppression.

With the government’s blessing, Johnson taught self-defense to high-ranking military officials and put on boxing exhibitions. There were even plans to make him into a movie star, playing an adventurer named Pedro Cronolio — a polar opposite of how films in the United States portrayed African-Americans. (In the end, Johnson never made any movies in Mexico. But after his imprisonment, he starred in two films in the United States: For His Mother’s Sake and The Black Thunderbolt.) Johnson also headed a land company that advertised in African-American newspapers, essentially recruiting others to join him south of the border.

One advertisement read: “You, who are lynched, tortured, mobbed, persecuted and discriminated against in the boasted land of liberty, the United States. Own a home in Mexico. Here, one man is as good as another, and it is not your nationality that counts but simply you.” The advertisement ended by stating, “Best of all, there is no race prejudice in Mexico, and severe punishment is meted out to those who discriminate against a man because of his color or race.”

Despite Johnson’s advertisement, Mexico was not a paradise of racial equality. And soon the Mexican Revolution’s violence claimed the life of Carranza. Fearing for his own safety after the assassination of the president who had welcomed and protected him, Johnson decided to leave Mexico to serve his time in the United States.

On July 20, 1920, Johnson, accompanied by his wife, walked from Tijuana across the United States-Mexico border and presented his passport to a San Diego County deputy sheriff. Authorities then took Johnson to Los Angeles before returning him to Chicago. Johnson asked only that they not travel through Texas, his home state, because he feared residents would attack him. Authorities changed their travel plans and drove around the state.

In Chicago, thousands of African-Americans welcomed Johnson’s return — even though he was in custody. Police fought back the crowdto make way for Johnson and his wife. Johnson spent months in Joliet Prison and Geneva Jail before a judge ordered him to Leavenworth, where Johnson entered on Sept. 19, 1920, to a crowd of cheering inmates. Five days later, he sent a telegram to his wife in Chicago informing her he’d arranged for her to receive $50 every two weeks.

Johnson’s second fight that Thanksgiving came against another African-American pro boxer, 37-year-old “Topeka” Johnson. The fight went four full rounds, with the former heavyweight champ dominating the other man.

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Observers from the warden’s special invites noted Johnson’s conditioning — he had entered the prison two months earlier at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds — and that, despite his age, he “still retain[ed] much of his cleverness and punching power.”

After the two fights, Johnson telegraphed his wife. “Everything went lovely yesterday,” he wrote. “Was sorry that you weren’t there.” A few days later, he wrote her again, informing her that during the event, he — the great symbol of racial anxiety, whom detractors often portrayed as subhuman — had caught a cold, had a toothache and had hurt his hand.

Johnson asked his wife to send along the recipe for “nerve medicine” and write him a long letter to help him pass the time. Inmate #15461 ended the telegram by writing, “Love and kisses,” before signing it “Jack.”


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