Not long ago, I met a fellow named William Johnson, an occasion made remarkable by the fact that Mr. Johnson’s been dead for more than 160 years. It could have happened only during Black History Month.
(Generally, I don’t observe Black History Month, for the same reason I don’t observe Black Algebra Month or Black Organic Chemistry Month: I know so little about so much that it’s fruitless to compartmentalize my ignorance.)
Our recording studio was contracted to provide spoken-word narrative for an exhibit at the Natchez National Historical Park, upon which site the beautifully restored antebellum home of William Johnson opened to the public. My task was to record voiceover artist David Bostick reading passages from Johnson’s diary, as part of the installation. Bostick, whose stentorian pipes remind one of a young Dennis Haysbert, had never read a script that long before, but he did a marvelous job bringing to life the curious syntax of what Greil Marcus called “the old, weird America.”
He should be glad he was reading excerpts, because the entire diary covers 14 volumes and 2000 pages. How it came to be written at all, let alone preserved and published, is a fascinating tale.
William Johnson was born on a plantation near Natchez in 1809. Not in the big house; Johnson was the offspring of a free white father and a mulatto slave mother. At age 11, he was emancipated through a legislative petition submitted by his owner — his father.
A freedman, Johnson apprenticed to the barbering trade, and by 1830 he owned his own shop on Main Street in Natchez. In 1835 he wed Ann Battles and began keeping a diary of his observations of daily life in the bustling river town. We think of early America as an austere environment, but only 60 years after the Revolution, Natchez was a center of commerce and culture. It boasted 11 hotels, three banks, a theatre, a racetrack and lots of saloons.
Johnson’s diary was not impeccably written, but its entries offer an incomparable view of history from street level. His subject matter was prosaic, but he had a businessman’s eye for detail. “I sold Burly Johnson my Little Spanish Horse today for 25 Dollars and he paid me 22 and owes me a balance of three dollars on the Horse,” he wrote in 1846. “Johnson then Got Drunk and wrode around the streets and the Horse threw him and got away.”
His many business dealings were recorded painstakingly, but never more artfully than in this 1841 note: “This has been a Dull week with me for I could not Collect money from Any One.”
Other weeks were filled with excitement, as when General Santa Anna visited Natchez, or a tornado leveled the town, or the day a previous night’s disagreement over supper at Rowan’s boarding house turned into a free-for-all in the streets. “One of the gamest fights that we have Ever had in Our City before,” Johnson observed.
The diarist recorded personal tragedy as well. “Oh how sad, how very sad I feel tonight,” he wrote in 1848 following the deaths of his mother and sister. “But alas it is folly to mourn over the past, the relentless past, which all my sighs can never recall. On the future lies my only hope of happiness…I can but try, and if I fail — try again.”
A prosperous businessman and ostensibly free, Johnson was nevertheless encumbered by his pigmentation. Attempting to book a steamboat trip in 1842, he was refused a stateroom. When he confronted the captain, he was told there was “a Rule on his boat not to let any Col persons have State Rooms on her.” He heard excuses doubtless familiar to people of color today: “He spoke of Prejudice of the Southern people, it was damd foolish &c, and that he was doing a Business for other people and was Compelld to adopt those Rules — I did not prevail by no means.”
You think we have racial issues now? Consider the predicament of Johnson, a freedman in a slaveholding state 20 years before the Civil War. By law he could not vote, serve in the militia or attend church services conducted by a black minister. He was, however, permitted to get an education (though there were no black schools), to marry and to buy and sell property.
Among the property William Johnson owned were other human beings.
In 1850, about 12 percent of all freedmen themselves owned slaves, but it is still astonishing to read how such a life was lived. Johnson’s 1838 account of dealing with a runaway named Steven is hair-raising: “He ran off 4 times in about 3 hours and Bill Nix Caught him Every time, so He Brought Him Home after a while and I went to the stable and gave him a pretty sefveere thrashing with the Cowhide — then he was perfectly Calm and Quite and could do his work. Tis singular how much good it does some people to get whiped.”
Why did Johnson, once a slave himself, traffic in human life? Was he trying to fit in with the white society he barbered? Did he believe in the institution of slavery? There is no answer in his diary, but he writes frequently of other political matters. On the subject of slavery, Johnson’s silence is anything but eloquent.
As though there were not contradictions aplenty in his life, Johnson was killed in 1851 by another freedman with whom he had business disputes. A local newspaper remarked, “This event has made a deep and painful impression upon our community.”
Someday I’ll get over to Natchez to visit William Johnson’s house, but meanwhile I retain the vivid impressions of his words, still compelling 180 years after their writing. They remind me once more why there is a Black History Month in the first place. It is not just black history. It is American history.