CHICAGO — As Linda Haywood was pumping gas last month, her cousin called with a jarring question: Had she heard about President Trump’s tweet?
It was not one of his typical tirades against political foes. The tweet said the president was considering a “full pardon” for Jack Johnson, who in 1908 became the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion but whose legacy was tarnished by a racially-charged conviction four years later for transporting a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.” The woman was his girlfriend and future wife, who was white.
The tweet was a jolt to Haywood. She says Johnson is her great-great-uncle, and she has been waging a yearslong campaign to clear his name.
“From that point forward all kind of people were calling me,” said Haywood, who is not on Twitter. “I was at that gas station from early afternoon until 6:30. I couldn’t get off the phone.”
The president’s tweet cast renewed light on Johnson’s story and the effort mounted by Haywood and several others, including the filmmaker Ken Burns and Senator John McCain, to clear his name.
There has been no indication since the tweet as to whether President Trump will follow through. The Justice Department, which typically evaluates such cases, has not commented, nor have White House officials.
President Trump in his tweet said the actor Sylvester Stallone had called him about the case. Haywood said she, too, had spoken to Stallone, though it is unclear if Stallone is doing anything else to advance the case. A representative for Stallone said he would not comment for this article and would not confirm the telephone call with the president or with Haywood.
A 62-year-old retired clerical worker and part-time seamstress, Haywood has waged her campaign for years, patiently sharing her trove of documents that she says links her lineage to Johnson, giving community talks and news media interviews.
For her and others who have campaigned for a pardon, President Trump’s mere mention of the possibility was intriguing.
“This really could happen, and all it would take would be a presidential signature,” said Burns, who produced the 2005 documentary “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.” “What we don’t know is about the sincerity or the spontaneity of it.”
Still, the bar for a posthumous pardon is high: Only two have been given by presidents.
Haywood discussed her campaign on a recent afternoon at her two-story brick home on the South Side of Chicago, showing a ribald sense of humor and a gift for gab. Her stories unspooled slowly, with winding tangents. The answer to a question about her family’s connection to Johnson included a 20-minute detour through the tale of a physically disabled cousin and discussion of an article she read that said Prince learned to play 27 instruments on his own.
“And what again was your question?” Haywood asked when she was done.
She said she first heard of Johnson and her connection to him through an uncle when she was 12 and growing up in the Robert Taylor Homes, a high-rise housing project on Chicago’s South Side.
She was play boxing when her uncle told her the story of how Johnson used to drop in, shower the family with treats, and leave. The story set off a fascination that led her to a library and a biography.
“You’re supposed to check books out of the library,” she said, chuckling and taking a sip of her ice water. “Honey, please. I took that little book up under my arm and politely walked my black so-and-so out the library and they have not seen it from that day to this.”
Johnson defeated a white opponent, Tommy Burns, for the world heavyweight title in 1908, and his subsequent dominance of the sport gave rise to the “great white hope” phenomenon. He was one of the most famous people in the United States at the time.
In 1910, he defeated the former undefeated heavyweight champion James Jeffries, a fight that caused race riots to break out.
During a time of lynchings and other racial animosity, he publicly dated white women, and flaunted his wealth and fame in a way rarely seen then among black public figures. Biographers have noted that he was married three times and routinely beat his wives.
In 1912, Johnson was charged with violating the Mann Act, a law prohibiting the transportation of women or girls across state lines for prostitution or “immoral purposes.” A different former girlfriend, also white, testified against Johnson, who was convicted and then fled the country for seven years.
On his return, he served 10 months in federal prison and eventually retired from boxing, eking out a living with sometimes humbling public appearances. He died in 1946 in a car accident at age 70.
“That is a tragic end to a man that was so great,” Haywood said.
She is frustrated that so few people, particularly young African Americans, seem to know much about Johnson.
Haywood learned more from her mother, Dorothy Cross, who started sharing her memories of Johnson with her daughter. Cross’s mother, Luella, was Johnson’s niece.
Cross, now 87, lives in a nursing home near Haywood’s home. She has dementia, but when she was shown a picture of Johnson, her eyes lit up.
“I used to love when he’d come around,” Cross said, softly. When asked why, she smiled a toothless grin. “Money,” she said.
Haywood said she has no doubt about her connection to Johnson. A number of available public records appear to back up Haywood’s claim, but some are riddled with spelling inconsistencies and other discrepancies that make it impossible to confirm the relation. The official record-keeping for black families from that time was also particularly shoddy.
Haywood herself possesses family birth certificates, death certificates, photocopies of the local census reports — some of them provided with help from an official at the National Trust for Historic Preservation — and yellowing photos of Johnson in protective plastic sleeves.
But the gaps from that period have made biographers leery of confirming whether she is related. Randy Roberts, who teaches at Purdue University and wrote a biography of Johnson in 1985, said in a telephone interview that Johnson spoke little of his family, aside from his mother. Roberts’s book mentions Johnson’s siblings, but only fleetingly.
Still, Haywood presses on. She spends much of her day responding to email and tending to other Johnson affairs, balanced with caring for her elderly mother and a son who has Down syndrome.
“My mother cares because she’s looking at his legacy,” said a daughter, Chianti Tolbert, who lives in Chicago. “Even if he wasn’t a great boxer, I think my mother would still be just as aggressive because he is family. I see her do it with other family members.”
Johnson’s case may have gotten the furthest when McCain, who is a boxing fan and was an amateur boxer at the Naval Academy, managed to get a resolution calling for Johnson’s pardon passed by Congress in 2004. (Haywood has appeared at one of McCain’s news conferences.)
President George W. Bush never followed up.
“Don’t you think this issue says something about the character of America?” McCain said in a 2015 interview with The Times.
Ms. Haywood said she was particularly frustrated that President Barack Obama, as the nation’s first black president and an avowed advocate for civil rights, did not issue a pardon.
Eric Holder, the attorney general under Obama, told a New York television station in August 2016 that while there was “no question” that Johnson was unfairly convicted, Johnson’s history of abusing women stood in the way of a pardon.
Groups have written to President Trump, who has pardoned three people, urging him to consider the Johnson case. Sam Collins III, the Texas representative for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has organized sending letters to Trump from the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, the Galveston County district attorney, local members of Congress and the mayor.
Collins called Haywood an important “cheerleader for the process.”
To Haywood, the long odds and setbacks are just more hardship she has pushed through all her life.
“People say when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” Johnson said. “Honey, I’ve made lemon squares, lemon bars, lemon pie. Lemon cookies.”
She said she endured poverty so deep growing up that her mother, who worked a series of low-wage jobs, sometimes could provide only a couple pieces of bread as her school lunch.
Haywood had her first of four children at 15 and was married at 16.
She said ultimately she is not looking to profit from Johnson’s fame.
“A lot of people on the internet were saying that I should be compensated,” Haywood said. “I don’t expect it, but if it happens it would be beautiful because my family is really indigent to tell you the truth. After he was imprisoned, nothing was ever the same.”
If Trump does come through, she has her celebration already planned out.
She will pour herself a “drank” — “not a drink, drank” — and work to establish a foundation in his name.
“Then,” Ms. Haywood said, “I’m going to shout from the rooftops.”
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Doris Burke contributed research from New York.