Sunday, August 2, 2009

Just finished reading - The Barber of Natchez by Edwin Adams Davis and William Ransom Hogan

Since becoming serious student of Southern history, I have always been fascinated by the story of free blacks in the antebellum South. Part of that fascination comes from their inherit unique situation of living in an environment where others of their race were held in slavery, but yet they were nominally free to pursue their own livelihoods in that restrictive setting.

The story of free black barber William Johnson emerged in 1938 when his personal and business journals were discovered in the attic of the businessman's house that had fortunately remained in the family. In 1951 the story was released to the pubic in the form of William Johnson's Natchez: The Antebellum Diary of a Free Negro, edited by Davis and Hogan. Although I have not read that version, it appears that it was merely the edited journals. The Barber of Natchez is written in free-flowing form. It obviously takes the meat of its story from the journals, but it is in a more reader-friendly style of writing. In addition, a rich context has been added to make Johnson's interesting life more understandable.

Johnson's story is nothing if not remarkable. He was born circa 1809. His mother Amy was freed by her owner William Johnson in 1814, when young slave William was about five years old. His sister Delia was taken to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and freed in 1818 by the white Johnson, and in 1820 Johnson petitioned the Mississippi General Assembly to free William. It is not known for sure if white William Johnson was black William Johnson's father, but the authors lean toward that conclusion.

After gaining his freedom William Johnson learned the barber business from his brother-in-law, Philadelphian and free-black James Miller who had married William's sister in Philadelphia and then moved to Natchez to open a thriving haircutting and shaving business. When William went out on his own at age nineteen, he decided to move to Port Gibson, Mississippi to start his own shop. In 1830, James Miller, whose success in Natchez is witnessed by his owning of four slaves, sold his Natchez barber business to William Johnson and relocated to New Orleans.

Johnson's journals give a private look into his world; his interests, his business sense, his standing in the community, and his relations with black, white, free, and slave. He comments on such a diverse array of topics that is it almost dizzying. Luckily the authors divided the topics focusing around themes rather than looking at them within a chronological framework.

The book is simply divided into three parts. Part one is about "The Man." Part two looks at, "A Free Negro's Diary of a Town." And, part three is called, "The Diarist Appraised." Some of the items explored in the extremely interesting part two are "Barbershop Gossip," in which Johnson relates much of the word of mouth news that to this day gets discussed in barbershops. "Pistols, Fists, and Bowie Knives" relates the many fights that were almost a daily occurrence in the Natchez streets. "Thespians and Clowns" discusses Johnson's interest in attending the theatre, especially when courting, and his fondness of visiting the traveling circuses that came to Natchez. In "Sports of the Turf" Johnson's love of horses and horse racing, which was such a large part of antebellum Southern sporting life, is examined.

As you might imagine, Johnson's racial characteristics kept him from participating in certain aspects of society. For example, he never participated in an election, but that did not keep him from discussing politics in his barbershop or expressing support for politicians that he believed would be of benefit to him and his businesses. As a black man he was not allowed to be in the militia, but that did not keep him from owning firearms or using them for hunting, which was one of his favorite pastimes. Johnson found unique ways to be an active member of the Natchez community. He watched his step closely. He tried to be accommodating, but was not unknown to sue a white man that defaulted on a loan or tried to take his property unlawfully.

Johnson's good business sense and likable nature allowed him to accumulate a large clientele. His wealth rose in proportion and he bought land and slaves as much as his financial means allowed him. He owned over twenty slaves at one time. He used his slaves for working his farming operation and he used some as well as in his three Natchez barbershops.

Johnson's life came to a sudden end in 1851 when he was murdered. The killer, Baylor Winn, claimed to be of white and Indian blood, but some in the community suspected that he was a free mulatto man like Johnson. The dispute arose over a property boundary line where Winn was allegedly cutting timber on Johnson's side. The case went to court and was decided in Johnson's favor, but to keep a sense of peace Johnson settled the matter in a less punitive manner than the court had allowed. But, apparently Winn was still not satisfied and shot Johnson in an ambush in which one of Johnson's sons was also wounded. After three trials over a two year period, Baylor Winn was released.

Johnson's standing in the Natchez community can be gleaned from a story about the murder that was run in the Natchez Courier; it read in part: "His funeral services were conducted by the Rev. Mr. Watkins, who paid a just tribute to his memory, holding up his example as one well worthy of imitation by all of his class. We observed very many of our most respected citizens at his funeral. Johnson left a wife, nine children, and quite a handsome property; probably twenty to thirty thousand dollars."

Without a doubt Johnson's story is a rare one for a free black man in the antebellum South, but without knowing his story we would have a less complete picture of what was possible for African Americans to attain in what we normally consider an impossible environment for their advancement. Johnson's story and other free black stories of success such as William Ellison's in South Carolina (see Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South by Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark) give us another perspective by which to view life in the pre-Civil War South; one that should not be ignored.

1 comment:

  1. i feel you. it is messed up how people made black people slaves without caring nothing about them. this should show us god is real because he has the ultimate say. Just look at america now. Black people are free but still enslave themselves. God saves us! I am always praying.