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'White Slavery' Pardon for Chicago Boxer Awaits Obama OK

By DNAinfo Staff | January 17, 2017 6:08am
 Boxer Jack Johnson is seen at his Chicago wedding to Lucille Cameron in 1912 in Chicago.
Boxer Jack Johnson is seen at his Chicago wedding to Lucille Cameron in 1912 in Chicago.
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Department of Justice

CHICAGO — Among the pardon requests sitting before President Barack Obama before he leaves office is at least one with a distinctly Chicago connection: the conviction of boxer Jack Johnson for what was once described as "white slavery."

In the summer of 1912, Johnson, the first black champion of the world, met Lucille Cameron at his Café de Champion at 41 W. 31st St., a mixed-race club he had opened earlier that year. She has been described as an 18-year-old white prostitute from Milwaukee.

Johnson first hired Cameron as his "stenographer," but the two were often seen in public as a couple, with photos capturing her on his arm, according to "Unforgiveable Blackness" by Geoffrey C. Ward.

 Jack Johnson, boxer.
Jack Johnson, boxer.
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Library of Congress

The gold-toothed Johnson was a flamboyant character, zipping around the city in any number of expensive sports cars and owning a pet leopard. The son of former slaves, he owned a huge home at 3344 S. Wabash Ave. and was known for flouting the norms of the times when it came to race and class. 

According to one historical account, some Chicago journalists cast Johnson as an example of "predatory black male sexuality." Whites were said to have followed him around Chicago and threatened to lynch him. Even some black newspaper editors were reluctant to defend him.

Alerted by a Chicago reporter that her daughter was "under the influence" of Johnson, Cameron's mother came to Chicago and told a curious press that Johnson was a kidnapper who "has hypnotic powers, and he has exercised them on my little girl."

"I would rather see my daughter spend the rest of her life in an insane asylum than see her the plaything of a n-----," the mother said.

RELATED: Chicago's Interracial Marriage History Here a Rocky One

Johnson was arrested in 1913 and, while Cameron refused to testify against him, another woman was used to eventually convict Johnson for violating the Mann Act, which prohibited "transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes."

Johnson fled, ending up in Montreal where Cameron, by then his wife, was waiting for him. Seven years later, after living in exile around the world, Johnson surrendered to U.S. authorities and spent 10 months in prison.

When Johnson was released from the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kan., Cameron was waiting, though four years later she filed for divorce, according to Ward's book.

Johnson died in 1946 at the age 68 after a car accident. He is buried in Chicago's Graceland Cemetery near his first wife, Etta Duryea, a white socialite he met in 1909 in Brooklyn.

A number of unsuccessful Congressional efforts over the years have been made to officially clear Johnson. According to the Washington Post, language recommending Johnson be pardoned was included into a 1,000-page education bill. And a change.org petition started by another former champion, Mike Tyson, argues that a pardon would be "righting the legacy of our great country."

In July, U.S. Senators John McCain and Harry Reid asked Obama to pardon him.

"Johnson ... was a true champion, a fighter and a barrier-breaking pioneer whose reputation was tarnished by the racism of that time, which led to his unjust imprisonment," Reid said in a letter.

The pardon has been described as a long shot, though. Because the Justice Department investigations on pardon requests are lengthy and complex, they are typically limited to people who are alive.


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