After a phone call from actor Sylvester Stallone, President Donald Trump tweeted that he was considering a full posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion. Johnson held the title from 1908 to 1915 and was also known as the Galveston Giant.
The man lived large, and on his own terms, which often rubbed others the wrong way. In 1913, Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act after transporting a white woman across state lines. After living abroad for seven years, he turned himself in to authorities in 1920 and served a little less than a year in prison.
Johnson’s legacy is complicated and so is his relationship with his hometown. That’s something that Doug Matthews, the former city manager of Galveston, has tried to change. Matthews is now the assistant vice president of government relations at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
Matthews is a native of Galveston and he says the city never really honored Johnson appropriately. After he won the world championship, it was revealed that Johnson was dating white women. He returned home only to have the public parade that was scheduled in his honor canceled. Matthews says he doesn’t think Johnson ever came back to Galveston again.
But in 2012 Matthews was part of a committee that created a park to properly memorialize the boxing legend.
“The community finally realized that it wanted to right a wrong,” he says. “What we decided to do is to recognize that he helped put Galveston on the map and we wanted to honor that significant role.”
They were able to secure $150,000 from an urban development grant program to build the park to honor Johnson.
Johnson inspired other boxing greats, like Muhammad Ali, who visited the city twice to pay tribute to Johnson’s hometown. In some ways Johnson’s swagger and irrepressible spirit made him an enduring influence on Ali.
“He had confidence,” Matthews says. “He made this community proud and as an African-American myself we really want to preserve our history.”
Matthews hopes President Trump will finally give Johnson the pardon he deserves even though he doesn’t criticize other presidents that didn’t come through with the decision. He says that the prejudice and racism that Johnson suffered still exists today but that Johnson is an inspiration for people the African-American community.
“That’s one thing that we admire about Jack Johnson,” Matthews says. “He did what he wanted to do and he dated who he wanted to date. He didn’t care what other people thought.”
Written by Jeremy Steen.