- Devorah Lissek
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.
Between 1830 and 1835 Johnson frequently traveled to New Orleans and to St. Francisville, Louisiana, as well as to other towns in Mississippi, to vacation and to court potential marriage partners. Johnson traveled less after 1835, the year he married twenty-year-old Ann Battles of Natchez, a free black woman. They had ten children together.
Also in 1835 Johnson began to keep a diary, writing journal entries almost daily until his death. The initial purpose of the diary was to record business transactions, purchases he made, and debts paid to him, but in addition, Johnson recorded town gossip, described events, and reported local political election results. Johnson’s diary thus tells the unusual story of a free African American who lived in the antebellum South and successfully pushed the limits of his status. The barbering business was Johnson’s primary source of revenue, but he was a true entrepreneur, acquiring additional income through money lending, property rentals, and agricultural endeavors. His other enterprises included a small toy shop, wallpaper sales, and buggy-and-cart rentals for the transportation of goods to the Natchez market. Johnson purchased and built several buildings, homes as well as commercial structures, and at the time of his death he owned more than 350 acres of land, purchasing land toward the development of a small farm or plantation. He hired a white overseer and owned, at the most, fifteen African-American slaves, some of whom he periodically hired out for additional income. A few of his slaves became apprentices in his barbering business.
It is known that Johnson competed against both blacks and whites in sports such as hunting, fishing, and horse racing and that he participated in lotteries and raffles and played cards, shuffleboard, and checkers because he recorded his wins and losses in his diary. Johnson spent time reading each week, either the books he owned or the several newspapers and magazines to which he subscribed. Johnson contributed to philanthropic organizations and was a theater goer. He also attended church but did not continuously belong to one religious denomination.
Although the law prohibited him from voting, Johnson was actively interested in politics and expressed sympathy for the Democratic party. He was in favor of universal suffrage and education and opposed imprisonment for debt. In general, Johnson had unusual relationships with whites, renting property to them, loaning them money, suing them in court, and even employing them as workers on his farm. Indeed, the level of Johnson’s participation in commerce, politics, and social events was rare for free blacks in the antebellum South. For the most part, he was able to conduct business and financial matters on an equal basis with whites, but despite his status as one of the most respected members of Natchez society, Johnson was subject to segregation as it applied to all African Americans in his community. Thus he sat in the balcony at the theater and stood outside of white churches in order to hear ministers speak. Exceptions were sometimes made for Johnson, but as the years passed, he became less satisfied with—and somewhat embittered by—the limitations placed on him because of his race.
At the age of forty-two Johnson was murdered in Natchez over a land dispute. His killer, Baylor Winn, was arrested but after two years of public trials was released from custody. The prosecution ultimately abandoned its case, in part because Winn was presumed to be white and the three witnesses were African American and, according to Mississippi law, were forbidden to testify against Winn. Johnson’s diary, which was preserved by his children and published a century after his death, totals 2,000 pages and comprises fourteen volumes. It is an important and unique account of antebellum southern life, race relations, economic and social conditions, and political affairs.
In 1938 the Johnson family donated Johnson’s diary as well as 1,310 other items in his collection to the Department of Archives at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. The published version of the diary, edited by William Ransom Hogan and Edwin Adams Davis, is William Johnson’s Natchez: The Ante-Bellum Diary of a Free Negro (1951). The Barber of Natchez (1954), by Davis and Hogan, is a biography of Johnson based on his diary. Johnson is cited in Ira Berlin, Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (1975), mainly in chap. 8, “The Sources of Free Negro Identity.”