Sometimes being a Negro Leagues journalist and historian can be somewhat depressing, to say the least. I love the research and writing process, but often that research and writing leads to realities that are just sad — and once in a while, mysterious.
This post is a follow up to this one I recently did on 1920s Hilldale Club outfielder George Johnson and labor relations in the Negro Leagues. It’s also kind of an add-on to this recent post I wrote about Delaware native Ed Stone, another Negro League outfielder, who’s buried in an unmarked grave in New Jersey.
While my previous post about Johnson expanded to explore labor rights in blackball, this post will focus on his personal life and background, leading up to a sudden, possibly mysterious death and what appears to be an unmarked grave in suburban Philadelphia.
According to his WWI draft registration card, Johnson was born on April 20, 1890, in San Marcos, Texas, which is near Austin. However, the 1900 Census — which has Johnson living in San Marcos with his parents, Alex and Amanda, and younger siblings Mary and Henry — states that Johnson was born in April 1892.
It appears that by 1910, George Johnson might have moved to Fort Worth to live with his aunt, Annie Hunt, and work as a laborer at a packing plant, according to the 1910 Census, which also gives his age as 20, which would support the birth date on his draft card.
A residence in Fort Worth in the 1910s is supported by the same draft card, which states that in June 1917, he was living in Fort Worth. His occupation is listed as “Baseball player” for the Dallas Black Giants. His place of employment, which is a bit unusual, is listed as “travelling” [sic], suggesting that the Black Giants were a barnstorming bunch. The draft card states that he is tall and slender.
Issues of the Dallas Morning News in 1918, include occasional mentions of the Black Giants, usually just a paragraph or two; at the time, it was common for the mainstream media to virtually ignore African-American baseball teams, or give them extremely short shrift.
Reports in the Morning News state that during the 1918 season, the Black Giants crossed bats with teams like the San Antonio Black Broncos, the Hot Springs Bears (who are also referred to as the Bear Cats), the Fort Worth Wonders, the Waco Black Navigators, an unnamed squad from Oklahoma City and an aggregation of soldiers from nearby Camp Travis.
The Black Giants were part of the Texas Colored League, and they appear to have used Gardner Park as their home diamond. The paper, though, makes no mention of Johnson specifically.
But later in 1918, Johnson had moved on to bigger and better things — namely, the famed Hilldale Club of Darby, Pa., a suburb of Philly. The 1920 Census seems to have the 29-year-old Johnson living in a rented apartment by himself, with his occupation listed as a hotel porter. (I say “seems” because George Johnson isn’t exactly an unusual name, especially in a big city. However, this George Johnson’s birth place is stated as Texas.
By the time the 1930 Census rolled around, 39-year-old George was still in Philadelphia, but he had married his wife, Catherine, , a 37-year-old Tennessee native, and had a 5-year-old daughter whose name is illegible on the Census page. George is listed as a hotel cook, while Catherine is a cook in a private family.
Why do I think this George Johnson is the one we’re looking for? The Census page states that he, as well as both parents, were born in Texas; his age roughly matches up to his birth date; and his 1940 death certificate also lists his wife as Catherine Johnson.
I couldn’t locate George or Catherine Johnson in the 1940 Census. Why? Because it seems they were both tragically deceased. Johnson’s 1940 death certificate states that he’s widowed.
But let’s focus on George himself. The Aug. 15, 1940, issue of the Philadelphia Tribune reported on his passing:
“George Johnson tagged home plate for the last time Monday.
“The former Hilldale star of many years ago was buried, following his sudden death last Tuesday.
“Known to many fans by virtue of his excellent play at centerfield and because of his ability with the bat, Johnson was one of the most popular players of the old Hilldale team.
“‘Home-Run,’ as he was called, was 50 years old and lived at 322 north 55th street.
“A native of Texas he hailed into town after a stiff apprenticeship with the southern ball clubs. He joined Hilldale in 1918 and played through until 1925. After he left the Daisies he played one season with the Lincoln Giants.
“He made Philadelphia his home following his retirement from active part in the game [sic], and lived with Phil Cockrell, former Hilldale pitcher, who was one of the pall-bearers.”
The article states that Johnson was survived by his daughter, Betty, and a niece, Ceola Smith. Services were conducted at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church by assistant Rev. Connie McDaniel.
For our purposes here, the crucial statement in that article is that the death was “sudden,” without any further explanation. In addition, I could find no other follow-up or corresponding articles in the Tribune offering more details.
So let’s moved to his death certificate. According to this document, his date of death was Aug. 6, 1940, with his address matching the one given in the Tribune article. As stated before, the certificate states that his wife, Catherine, was deceased. His place of death was Presbyterian Hospital.
The certificate reports his occupation as “laborer” and his age as 50 but gives no birth date; however, it does list his place of birth as San Marcos, Texas, and his father’s name as “Alec Johnson.” But the report also states that the name of his mother is “unknown.” Johnson’s niece, Ceola Mae Smith, was the informant.
But here, along with the Tribune’s article stating his death as sudden, is the eerie part — no cause of death is given at all. Instead, it says the local coroner is conducting a pending inquest into Johnson’s death.
And when I called the current city of Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office — which replaced the office of coroner — a staffer there said their records only go back to 1942, and even they did have documents from 1940, it would take a living relative or, failing that, a lawyer’s subpoena to get documents.
So it seems that George Johnson might have died somewhat mysteriously. But there’s more.
Both the Tribune article and the death certificate list the place of interment as Lincoln Memorial Park. His death certificate states the date of interment as Aug. 12, 1940.
I called the facility that evolved from Lincoln Memorial Park, Mount Lawn Cemetery, and a staffer there told me that George Johnson was indeed buried there and that records only noted that an inquest had been pending at the time of burial and that the grave site was owned by “the George Johnson estate.”
Then the big thing — the staffer told me that there’s no record of a headstone being purchased or placed at the grave.
Which brings us back to the last paragraph of the Tribune article:
“A movement to gather funds to erect a bronze memorial tablet over the grave of the outfielder was started among his former teammates.”
Sadly, it looks like that kindhearted effort might have failed. And thus we have yet another Negro Leaguer in an unmarked grave.