Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson’s Connection to Geneva

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Jack Johnson, the legendary first black heavyweight boxing champion from 1908-1915, was pardoned by President Donald Trump on May 24 from a criminal conviction in 1913 for transporting a white woman across state lines.  In the summer of 1920, Johnson was charged again for the same crime and was sent to Joliet prison to await his day in court in Chicago.  According to the July 20, 1920 Geneva Republican newspaper, when it was discovered that Johnson was being given “auto rides and ice cream sundae parties by jail officials and admirers in Joliet” he was moved to Geneva as a resident in jail at the Kane County Courthouse building at Third and James Streets.

Johnson spent several weeks in jail here in Geneva in 1920 and according to the August 6, 1920 Geneva Republican “Jack Johnson is Restless in Jail” and that the “ex-champ does not take kindly to life in a county jail… Jack is not much of a reader but he likes to talk and his travels around the world during the past eight years have made him a very interesting conversationalist… In his cell here Jack has boxing gloves and dumb bells and he takes what exercise he can but none of the deputy sheriffs have accepted his invitation to put on the gloves for a little sparring match.”

According to files in the Geneva History Museum’s archives Johnson’s stay here in Geneva seems to have been a pleasant one.  While in Geneva, Johnson must have ordered shoes from Peterson’s Shoe Store on West State Street.  The Museum has a wooden shoe form with “Jack Johnson, August 31, 1920” written on the side which is on display in the Museum’s Main Gallery, “Geneva’s Story.”  The July 22, 1921 Geneva Republican reports that a year after his release from jail, “Jack Johnson, former heavyweight champion pugilist, his wife and a party of friends, motored out from Chicago last Sunday and spent several hours in this city.  Jack paid a visit to Charles Nelson, county jailer, who had charge of the famous man when he was a federal prisoner here last summer.”

The article later states that, “Johnson was sent to federal prison at Ft. Leavenworth where he served out his sentence of one year.  Jack worked into the position of athletic director and was a popular leader in various forms of sports.”

During this time Johnson was hoping to finally land a match with Jack Dempsey who received the title of world heavyweight champion in 1919.  Did Johnson ever get his dream of taking on Dempsey?  There are lots of rumors that the fight took place in a private in an illegal prizefight staged by high-roller gamblers and that Dempsey knocked out Johnson.  Neither Dempsey or Johnson would ever confirm it.

The Geneva History Museum is a non-profit organization with a mission to preserve and share Geneva’s evolving story while inspiring and engaging the community.  The Museum is located at 113 South Third Street, Geneva with gallery hours 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesdays thru Saturdays.  Admission is $3/person, $2/children ages 3-10, and FREE for Museum Members.  For more information contact the Museum at 630-232-4951 or GenevaHistoryMuseum.org.

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