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Johnson, William(1809–1851) - Diarist, entrepreneur, Becomes Successful Businessman, Chronology, Life in Natchez

white mississippi johnson’s local

William Johnson, in his efforts to keep orderly records of his business transactions and the events in Natchez, Mississippi, wrote one of the most important historic documents of Antebellum America. His diaries constitute one of the few records that give extensive insight into this part of U.S. social and economic history. As a slave who had been freed, Johnson became a successful businessman and a slaveholder. He began with a barbershop and expanded into various business as well as land ownership. Johnson’s diary records how he negotiated a society of racial limitations and discrimination while embracing many white aristocratic values. Although Johnson’s experiences serve as an example of the complex role of a free person of color and a slaveholder, his ability to negotiate amicable relations with whites in the pre-Civil War period marked a unique instance for the times. Johnson was able to rise to a level of prominence in Natchez and was respected by both black and white persons in his community.

William Johnson was born in 1809 to Amy Johnson, a slave in Natchez, Mississippi. Amy Johnson and her children were owned by William Johnson of Adams County. Although the child bore the status of his mother, his father ultimately determined his condition. Amy Johnson never openly said that her master, William Johnson, was the father of her children but it was known to be true. When young Johnson was five years old, his mother was emancipated by her owner. Four years later, in 1818, Amy’s daughter, a mulatto girl named Delia, was also emancipated by Johnson. It was not until 1820, when young Johnson was eleven years old, that he was freed through a petition submitted also by his master to the Mississippi General Assembly. Johnson was apprenticed to his brother-in-law James Miller, a Philadelphia-born free Negro barber in Natchez. Miller was a well-established and respected local businessman. He taught Johnson the barber business, and he took the place of a father by imparting ethical principals and behaviors that shaped Johnson’s character. Miller also initiated him into the ways of upper class free Negroes and the vaguely marked boundaries of economic and social status in the white Natchez community. The lessons that Johnson learned became a key part of his business and social practices throughout his life in Natchez.

Becomes Successful Businessman

In 1828 Johnson acquired a barbershop in Port Gibson, Mississippi. Two years later Johnson sold his Port Gibson shop to purchase Miller’s shop in Natchez when Miller moved to New Orleans. The Natchez barbershop served a predominately white clientele and was very popular. Johnson and his staff provided haircuts, shaves, fitted wigs, and sold fancy soaps and oil. He was so enterprising that in 1833 he was able to purchase a brick building on Main Street. The following year he opened a bathhouse at this location and was able to pay it off within two years. Johnson owned several rental properties, rented rooms for office and retail use, as well as loaned money in small amounts for short periods of time. He speculated on farmland and owned as many as fifteen slaves before his death. As a smart businessman, he also kept abreast of social issues that were important to his status. Johnson dressed fashionably, read newspapers, and purchased books. Though not belonging to one particular denomination, Johnson did attend church. His hobbies supported his competitive side: he enjoyed sports such as hunting, fishing, and horse racing, and participated in lotteries, cards, checkers, raffles, and shuffle-board. He recorded his wins and losses for these activities as well as his business transactions in his diary.

In 1833, Johnson spent two months visiting New York, Philadelphia, and other cities. In a search for a potential bride, he began traveling to New Orleans, St. Francisville, Louisville, as well as other lower Mississippi towns to vacation. After traveling widely, he settled for a local woman. In 1835 Johnson married Ann Battles, the daughter of a family friend and a hometown girl of Natchez. Both Battle and her mother were freed slaves who were emancipated in 1826. Battle was perceived as catching the most eligible bachelor in her class in Natchez. The couple spent sixteen years together and had ten children, with the last child born only a month before Johnson’s death.



Born into slavery in Natchez, Mississippi


Freed and apprenticed to brother-in-law James Miller


Acquires barbershop in Port Gibson, Mississippi


Purchases Miller’s Barbershop in Natchez


Keeps diary of business transactions and life in the Antebellum South


Expands business to include money lending, land and slaves


Marries Ann Battles of Natchez


Murdered by Baylor Winn in Natchez, Mississippi on June 17


Johnson’s diary is published by family

In 1835 with his new wife, Johnson completed a three-story brick home only half a block from the Adams County Courthouse. His other ventures included a toy shop, engaging in wallpaper sales, and providing cart rentals for transporting goods. He also expanded his money-lending operations, agricultural holdings, and slave ownership. However, even as the most respected and successful free Negro in Natchez, Johnson was still subject to racism. He had access to the courts, but he could not vote, sit on a jury, or bare arms in the local militia. At the theater he was still relegated to the balcony. On Sundays he stood outside to hear sermons at white churches where Negroes were not allowed to enter. The only time he truly crossed the line of segregation was in death: he was buried in the local white cemetery. His mother and one of his daughters were also buried there.

Life in Natchez

Embracing the genteel white tradition of keeping a diary, Johnson recorded his view of the antebellum South. With no formal education, Johnson learned about his community and its social rules from his brother-in-law. Politically and socially, Johnson had unusual relationships with whites. He was able to conduct business on a fairly equal basis. As a freed person, Johnson knew both enslaved and free Negroes, as well as the white aristocrats and the white lower class. He loaned money to whites, employed them in some of his businesses, and even sued them in court. He did not write much about religion, and he left political issues such as slavery as a whole to others. Although he could not vote, he was interested in politics and was sympathetic to the Democratic Party. He was in favor of universal suffrage and education. Johnson did offer an opinion on some local issues. Business transactions were a key part of Johnson’s dairy, and he also made notes regarding his slaves and related transactions. He vacillated between scorn and pity for other blacks. Regarding his role as slaveholder, Johnson recorded the circumstance of one problem slave. He determined that the slave, Stephen, who drank excessively, was to be sold. He agonized over the decision but came to no other solution. Johnson took the slave system as it was.

In 1851 at the age of forty-two Johnson was murdered over a land-border dispute. Baylor Winn, a long time neighbor, had recently been at odds with Johnson over land and timber rights. Winn ambushed Johnson after he lost the dispute. Johnson lived until the next day and left a statement that Winn was the person who shot him. The fact that Winn claimed to be a white man was the central issue in the trial. Although legally Winn had passed for white, the Johnsons were able to get documentation with certification from the governor of the state that showed Winn and his family to be free Negroes from King William County. The defense was able to have this information left out due to legal technicalities. This ruling, which allowed Winn’s claim that he was white, prevented the crucial eyewitness testimony to be given. All three witnesses for the case were Negroes and by Mississippi law Negroes were legally barred from testifying against whites. The case continued through two trials and at two separate locations and was abandoned after two years. Local papers all over the state followed the case as it unfolded. Until her death in 1866, Johnson’s wife maintained the family. Her sons and employees maintained the barbershop through the Civil War and afterwards. By 1872, the family name had been changed to Johnston and as members of the family died over the years, the local Natchez press continued to refer to their lineage as one of the most respected local families.

William Johnson, in his efforts to succeed and achieve acceptance, tried diligently to conduct himself as an honorable human being. At the time of his death Johnson had acquired 350 acres of farmland and timberland, several buildings and businesses, and fifteen slaves. Johnson’s diary, which was cherished and preserved by his family for nearly a century, contains over two thousand pages in fourteen volumes. The diary of life in Natchez, Mississippi from 1835 to 1851 gives accounts of antebellum Southern life, race relations, economic and social conditions, political affairs, and a unique look at a freed slave’s rise to a level of prominence.

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about 5 years ago

Johnson, William(1809–1851) - Diarist, entrepreneur, Becomes Successful Businessman, Chronology, Life in Natchez

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almost 6 years ago

looking for the johnson family. Minnie johnson had a daughter named Elizabeth Alberta Johnson born in 1907 in Mississippi and was Mulatta.Elizabeth got married to a Carson, then a Barber.She changed her name to just Lizzie Barber and she died in 1985.Just looking for family and nothing more.