Last edited: January 25, 2005

Visitors Drawn to Jack Johnson’s Grave in Chicago

Chicago Tribune, January 25, 2005

By Robert K. Elder

CHICAGO (KRT)—Since Ken Burns’ film “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” aired last week on public television, the former African-American heavyweight champion has received new visitors at his final resting place in Graceland Cemetery.

“We’ve been receiving a number of calls, maybe 20,” says Aki Lew, cemetery administrative manager. “There is a little more public awareness of him. (Previously), unless you were a boxing fan, you might not know who he was.”

Burns’ documentary may be changing that, but those trying to find his grave might have a tough time locating it.

“There is a large upright stone that says `Johnson,’ but Jack Johnson is in an unmarked grave, at the foot of (his first wife) Etta’s grave,” Lew says. Linda Haywood, Johnson’s great-great-niece, says the large stone monument was his intended headstone.

“That was supposed to identify him, that big headstone there,” says Haywood, a seamstress in the Ashburn neighborhood. “Once that was placed there, (the family) thought that was sufficient enough.”

Johnson, who was married three times, died in a car crash in 1946. He bought the Graceland plot in 1912 for family burials, after the death of his first wife, Etta, who has a small stone at the foot of the large monument that reads, “Etta, beloved wife of Jack A. Johnson.”

The 1967 prizewinning play loosely based on Johnson’s life, “The Great White Hope,” was made later into a 1970 movie starring James Earl Jones. In the fall of 1969, the theatrical touring company starring Brock Peters went to Graceland Cemetery, which occupies parts of Uptown and Lake View, intending to place a headstone on Johnson’s exact burial site.

But the boxer’s relatives objected.

“My aunt felt that it was a cheap publicity stunt,” Haywood says. “They didn’t have his memory’s best intentions at heart.”

Haywood says the cast even bought a headstone that included the nickname “Li’l Artha,” which further appalled his relatives.

“The family, at the time, found (it) extremely offensive.

“They didn’t even ask us, didn’t show us any courtesy,” Haywood says.

Now, with Burns’ film and a possible ESPN movie in the works, Haywood says her family has talked about giving Johnson a more distinct, individual headstone.

“We have future plans to do so,” Haywood says.

“We also have to get headstones for other members of the family, probably 10 or 12 of them.”

Though Haywood considers it inconsiderate that neither Burns nor biographer Geoffrey C. Ward ever contacted the family, she still found the four-hour documentary “mind-boggling.”

“I was just amazed that this man who was my uncle was so famous and flashy. I was always told about him when I was a little child,” Haywood says. “I was just blown away. That’s a very good, proud feeling.”

Johnson’s eternal neighbors in Graceland Cemetery other Chicago luminaries, include architects Louis Sullivan and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, retailer Marshall Field and several mayors.

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