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Johnson, William (1809–17 June 1851), diarist and entrepreneur, was born in Natchez, Mississippi, the son of William Johnson, a slaveholder, and Amy Johnson, a slave. When William was five years old his mother was emancipated and established her household in Natchez. In 1820 the eleven-year-old William was freed by the Mississippi legislature at the request of his owner. Once emancipated, he apprenticed with his brother-in-law, James Miller, in his barber business in Natchez. Johnson became proprietor of the business—reportedly the most popular barber shop in Natchez—when Miller moved to New Orleans in 1830. Johnson and his African-American staff ran the shop, which served a predominantly white clientele. Johnson’s barbers not only offered haircuts and shaves, they also fitted wigs, sold fancy soaps and oils, and, beginning in 1834, operated a bathhouse at the Main Street location....

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Knight, Sarah Kemble (19 April 1666–25 September 1727), diarist and businesswoman, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the daughter of Thomas Kemble, a merchant, and Elizabeth Trerice. She married Richard Knight of Boston, of whom little is known, and had one child.

The Boston census in 1707 recorded that Sarah Knight, then a widow, headed her deceased father’s Moon Street household and shop. She kept boarders and may also have taught school. Knowledgeable about law, she served as a copier of legal documents and witness to one hundred or more deeds. In 1704, she traveled to New York to settle a family estate, keeping a diary of her journey that was first published in 1825 in ...

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Smith, Venture (1729?–19 September 1805), slave, entrepreneur, and autobiographer, also known as Broteer Venture, was born in Dukandarra, Guinea, the eldest child of Saungm Furro, a prince. His mother, whose name is unknown, was the first of his polygynist father’s three wives; she took five-year-old Broteer and her two younger children with her when she left her husband to protest his marrying the third wife without her consent. After traveling for five days over about 140 miles, she left Broteer with a farmer before returning to the country where she was born. This farmer treated Broteer like a son, employing him for a year as a shepherd, until the boy was sent for by his father. Returning to Dukandarra, Broteer found his mother and father reconciled....

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Walker, David (1796?–06 August 1830), used-clothing dealer and political writer, was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, the son probably of a free black woman and possibly of a slave father. Almost nothing is known about either parent; only a little more is known about Walker’s years in the South. Walker was born in a town where by 1800 African Americans predominated demographically over whites by more than two to one. Their influence on the town and the region was profound. Most labor—skilled or unskilled—was performed by black slaves who were the foundation of the region’s key industries: naval stores production, lumbering, rice cultivation, building construction, and shipping. The Methodist church in Wilmington was largely the creation of the local black faithful. The skill and resourcefulness of the African Americans amid their enslavement deeply impressed Walker....