William Johnson was a freedman who lived in Natchez and kept a diary from 1835 to 1851. The diary, discovered in the attic of the Johnson home in 1938 and first published in 1951, portrays the economic, social, and political life of Natchez in the 1830s and 1840s. It is one of the few surviving narratives by an African American in the antebellum South.
Johnson was born a slave in Natchez in 1809. His master, William Johnson, freed the diarist’s mother, Amy, in 1814 and the boy six years later, and William adopted his former master’s name. Despite speculation that the elder Johnson had fathered both of Amy’s mulatto children, the diarist never identified his father. In the early 1820s young William went to work for his brother-in-law, James Miller, a freedman from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who had operated a successful Natchez barbershop. By 1828 William was running his own barbershop in Port Gibson, but he returned to Natchez two years later and bought Miller’s business when Miller moved his family to New Orleans. In 1835 Johnson married Ann Battles, and they had eleven children over the course of their sixteen-year marriage.
Johnson prospered throughout the 1830s and 1840s. As a barber, Johnson catered almost exclusively to whites. As his business grew, he opened a bathhouse and two smaller barbershops where he employed several barbers, both free and slave, and trained a number of apprentices. He also owned sixteen slaves. Johnson also developed a side business as a moneylender and broker. Again, most of his clients were white, and some received loans of up to one thousand dollars. Johnson engaged in a number of other economic activities, selling everything from toys to wallpaper, operating a horse and dray, speculating in land, renting buildings, and hiring out his slaves to work for others. Johnson also purchased land in the swampy areas of Adams County and started a farm he named Hard Scrabble. Although the farm produced corn, vegetables, fruits, wool, and cattle, most of its revenue came from timber sales. All of Johnson’s business ventures succeeded, and at the time of his death his personal assets were valued at almost twenty-five thousand dollars.
In the late 1840s, however, a bitter boundary dispute erupted between Johnson and a neighbor. On 16 June 1851 Johnson was shot in an ambush as he returned to his farm. Before he died the next morning, Johnson regained consciousness and identified the shooter as his neighbor, Baylor Winn, who claimed to be of Native American descent and thus white rather than a free person of color. Winn was arrested and brought to trial three times over the next two years. The first two trials centered on Winn’s racial heritage, since the only witnesses to the murder were African Americans, who were legally barred from testifying against whites. The prosecutor ultimately concluded that he could not obtain a conviction and dropped the charges against Winn.
Johnson used his diary primarily to keep business records, but he also recorded the weather, court cases, fights, social functions, births, deaths, marriages, political campaigns, holiday celebrations, epidemics, and recreational activities such as horse races, parades, cockfights, circuses, and balls. The diary thus paints a vivid picture of Natchez as the center of a thriving community of free and enslaved African Americans who displayed a variety of personalities in their dealings with one another and with whites, who lived in a variety of economic circumstances, and who had distinct social levels.
- Edwin Adams Davis and William Ransom Hogan, The Barber of Natchez (1973)
- Virginia Meacham Gould, Chained to the Rock of Adversity: To Be Free, Black, and Female in the Old South (1998)
- William Johnson, William Johnson’s Natchez: The Ante-Bellum Diary of a Free Negro, ed. William Ransom Hogan and Edwin Adams Davis (1993)
- Winthrop D. Jordan, Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy (1995)
- Natchez National Historical Park website, www.nps.gov/natc/index.htm