Past Plays

    Photo by Ariana Bacle / North by Northwestern.

    On Thanksgiving Day in 1903, Northwestern University played the Carlisle Indian School in a football game at South Side Park in Chicago. Led by their star quarterback Jimmy Johnson, a Stockbridge Indian, Carlisle dismantled the previously undefeated Northwestern 28-0. But the following year, Johnson was suiting up to play in purple.

    Jimmy Johnson, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, has been dead for almost 70 years. But his life – both on and off the field – has been preserved in a scrapbook, which came into the possession of the Northwestern University Archives in September 2010. Underneath the story told in the decaying pages of the scrapbook is another tale, untold, in which Johnson’s Stockbridge heritage is not the certainty it once was.

    Though the scrapbook thoroughly details Johnson’s career on the field, it leaves more questions than answers about his life outside of football. The fact that Johnson was Native American would have been difficult enough at a mostly white school in 1904, but evidence shows that Jimmy Johnson may have been African-American, which would have been extremely rare for a college football player or regular student at a white school in the early 20th century.

    “This could not have been an entirely welcoming environment for someone who was not part of the Northwestern mainstream,” says Kevin Leonard, Northwestern University archivist. “There’s more to the story than just sports.”

    A Football Legend

    One of Jimmy’s descendants, Clarence Cameron, 69, of Madison, Wis., donated the scrapbook to the University Archives earlier this year. The scrapbook was most likely compiled by Jimmy’s younger brother Adam, who also included several personal effects in the book. The books eventually found their way to Cameron, who is Jimmy’s great-nephew.

    “I’m not a football fan,” says Cameron. “I’m interested in tracking his life.”

    Leonard hopes that the scrapbook will increase awareness of Johnson’s career, which remains relatively unknown among casual football fans.

    “There’s probably hardly anyone around who knows anything about him, except those people who are historians of football, or the truly remarkable fans,” he says.

    Jimmy Johnson was born in Edgerton, Wis. in 1879, and was raised as a Stockbridge Indian. He attended the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania from 1899-1903 and played for its football team.

    Carlisle was very well respected nationally with Johnson under center; Walter Camp named Johnson an All-American in 1903. However, his football days did not end with his graduation from Carlisle, as at the time of Johnson’s career, graduate school students were allowed to play for their school’s team. After Johnson graduated from Carlisle and attended Northwestern to study dentistry, he was able to play football for the Purple.

    “I just hope people at this school and anyone interested in football history get something out of [the scrapbook],” says Cameron. “I’m glad that Northwestern has it.”

    The “Little” Indian

    The recently donated scrapbook keeps Johnson’s story alive and provides insight into the football world and social situation of the day. The headline of the article describing Carlisle’s victory over Northwestern, for example, read: “Our First Varsity Defeat: Indians Scalp in Blinding Snow.”

    Most revealingly, the articles in the scrapbook almost always refer to Johnson as “the Indian,” or some sort of similar phrase (one article, for example, called him “the little Indian”). The articles include a number of phrases and cartoons that we would consider to be quite offensive today.

    There is no evidence to suggest Johnson was treated much differently because of his race at Northwestern. However, though he is believed by most to be a Stockbridge Indian, it now appears that history may have its facts wrong. Though Johnson’s mother was a Stockbridge Indian, it appears his father may have been African-American or mulatto.

    Unlocking Johnson’s Ancestry

    If Johnson was truly of mixed race, then it is doubtful that his peers recognized him as such. Being Native American in that time period was one thing; identifying as black was on an entirely different level. If people knew Johnson was even part African-American, he probably would not have had the same opportunities. Black players, for the most part, were restricted to playing football at black colleges until the mid-20th century; there were exceptions, of course, but African-American players were largely unwelcome at predominantly white colleges during Johnson’s career.

    It is difficult to pinpoint his father’s ethnicity; on the 1880 U.S. Census, Jimmy’s father, James A. Johnson, is listed as mulatto. His father was born in Tennessee, which would be an extremely unlikely (if not impossible) birthplace for a Stockbridge Indian — the tribe originally hailed from New York before relocating to the Midwest.

    James A. Johnson would have been born around 1848; the 1850 Tennessee census lists a James Johnson that closely fits the necessary parameters, as the son of Freeman Johnson and Sarah Johnson (who would have been Jimmy Johnson’s grandparents). Though it is difficult to trace Freeman Johnson’s roots, the name “Freeman” was somewhat common for a free African-American in the age of slavery.
    According to Cameron, who has been trying to unlock the mystery of Jimmy’s genealogy, he has seen James A. Johnson listed as black, mulatto and white on three different censuses.

    Cameron –- who is part white, black, Native American and Asian –- hypothesizes that Jimmy’s father was African-American. Cameron’s research has indicated that James A. Johnson served with the U.S. Colored Troops in the Civil War; family photos also show James with darker skin than Jimmy, who probably looks more African-American than Native American.

    But the Carlisle Indian School still listed Jimmy as a full-blood Stockbridge Indian, even though this was not the case. Somewhat oddly, Jimmy’s brothers and sisters were all listed as half-Stockbridge. Even so, Johnson would have been more of an outsider at Northwestern than at Carlisle.
    “It couldn’t have been all that easy for him,” says Leonard “Maybe he was just capable of dealing with whatever life threw at him.”

    A Mystery Continues

    Even though the scrapbook chronicles Jimmy’s life on the field in excellent detail, it leaves some questions un-answered. We do not know why half of Jimmy’s ethnicity been relatively unknown for this long, and we have no idea whether he experienced difficulty integrating with Northwestern’s largely white student body. His social life is relatively unknown, and Jimmy’s father, James A. Johnson, is an entirely separate puzzle. Mysteries surrounding Johnson’s life remain unsolved, and Cameron is still looking for answers.

    “He was an interesting relative and I keep trying to find a little more about him,” says Cameron. “And every once in awhile something just falls into place.”

    The library owns a number of scrapbooks, including several from former football players. But Leonard considers the Jimmy Johnson scrapbook to be the most interesting because of Jimmy’s complex story both on and off the field, especially the difficulties he may have faced as a minority. But there is still much to piece together about Jimmy Johnson’s life.

    “It looks to me like a very uplifting story of a guy that must have faced some adversity,” says Leonard. “He just took the ball and ran, in football and in life.”


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