I have been taking some vacation time and exploring Mississippi. My journeys took me to Natchez, MS on the Mississippi River. I was keen in visiting the William T. Johnson home on State Street because he is an interesting person of history. Mr. Johnson was born into slavery in 1809. He was freed by Captain William Johnson, presumably his white father in 1820, when he was eleven by petition to the state. The petition* included this quote justifying emanicipating a child, “that disposition of this property [would be] most agreeable to his feelings and consonant to humanity… [giving] liberty to a human which all are entitled as a birthright, and extend the hand of humanity to a rational creature.”
Mr. Johnson learned the trade of being a barber and soon had three barber shops in Natchez. He was held in high esteem by the citizenry of the city and became quite wealthy. But this is not the reason, Mr. Johnson is to be remembered. He is to be remembered because he kept a diary for 16 years that reveals what life was like for the freed people of color living in Mississippi in the first half of the 19th century. Natchez had the largest community of freed people of color in Mississippi at that time. He also owned 15 slaves when he died. This adds curiousity to his life as well. Why would a former slave own slaves? Part of the answer thats been suggested might be in the desire to elevate oneself in a society that measures success by slave ownership.
His diary does not reveal his personal opinions about slavery. To talk or to write openly about the abolition movement in the north or to express an opinion about slavery as a person of color was a very dangerous act. Mr. Johnson must have known this. The closest he comes to revealing an opinion is his writing about what he calls “the inquisition” where freed people of color were rounded up for working with abolitionists. He writes that some of the people rounded up proved to be of Indian decent and were cleared and released. A law was passed requiring all free people of color to leave Mississippi unless a petition was made on their behalf by respectable white freeholders. Mr. Johnson had that respect from the white community and was allowed to remain.
Mr. Johnson was killed over a dispute of land boundaries by a Baylor Winn on June 16, 1851. Mr. Johnson was shot on his way home with free black apprentice Edward Hoggart, his son William and a slave. His dying words named Mr. Winn as the person who shot him. The community of Natchez was in such an uproar over the murder of Mr. Johnson that Winn’s trial had to be in a neighboring county. The issue at stake however, was not Winn’s innocence or guilt but rather on Winn’s ethnic background. Everyone in Natchez knew that Winn was of African decent. But Winn successfully convinced the court that his ancestry was not interracial betwen white and black but rather Native American and therefore was White. Mississippi law stated that black witnesses could not testify against a White man. Winn was therefore never convicted and allowed to walk free. However, several years later, it was proved by the Virginia census records where Winn’s family originated, that his ancestry did indeed include African lineage. Mississippi did not acknowledge the documentation.
Mr. Johnson’s diary has been published and is available. His daughter’s diary has also been published and gives a picture of Mississippi after the civil war. These are important documents that capture a slice of what life was like for free people of color in the antebellum south. Do go and visit his homestead and learn more about our history from a potentially different perspective. Blessings, Rev. Fred L Hammond
* Information taken from “Between Two Worlds: The Life of Free Black Diarist William T. Johnson” published by the Natchez National Historic Park.