By Rheta Grimsley Johnson
NATCHEZ – Young Barney Schoby has an actor’s animation and a historian’s mind. Who better to guide you through the place that does more to explain the nuanced Natchez heyday than any other?
The big, red-brick building on State Street once housed the home and business of the free black barber William Johnson. Johnson, successful businessman and relentless diarist, sometimes called “the black Pepys,” chronicled the day-to-day dealings of a society when cotton was king.
The National Park Service has owned the house since 1990, but the Johnson diaries have been famous for their rare glimpse of antebellum history since LSU published them in 1951.
Schoby – who once taught, like his father before him – didn’t find his middle-school job a good fit. When his Alcorn State University professor told him about the Park Service opportunity, Schoby jumped at the chance.
Now he teaches, all right, but the lesson plan involves one man: William Johnson. That man was extraordinarily interesting, clever and complicated, straddling the line between black and white societies. And Schoby has made it his business to learn Johnson’s strengths and frailties.
Johnson was a money lender, some might say a loan shark. He even loaned money once to the Mississippi governor who signed his emancipation papers. Johnson loved duck and alligator hunting, and betting on the horses and cockfights.
“Bottom line, William Johnson was a gambler,” adds Schoby, who could make drying paint a lively topic. “He would bet on anything.”
Johnson, born a slave, was freed at age 11 by the white slave owner presumed to be his father, another William Johnson. The Natchez population in the mid-1800s was 3,000 whites, 1,600 black slaves and 200 free blacks. Johnson, the freed slave, eventually owned three barbershops and a bathhouse, lots of land, not to mention slaves.
Talk about your complex societies.
The diary Johnson began in 1835 and continued until his murder 16 years later was interrupted only once, for two weeks in 1840.
“And do you know why?” Schoby asks dramatically, rhetorically. That year a tornado leveled downtown Natchez, built mostly of timbers, and Johnson was busy salvaging the bricks from a toppled hotel. He used some of the brick to build the house you can now tour, and he sold the rest to builders who wanted more tornado insurance.
“He was not a man to miss an opportunity.”
Johnson’s story ended badly, his diary abruptly. A neighbor, Baylor Winn, had been selling timber from land both men claimed. Johnson hired surveyors to determine the boundary. On June 16, 1851, Baylor Winn ambushed William Johnson and shot him in the back. Before he died, Johnson identified his murderer.
The only witnesses to the crime were Johnson’s son, a slave and a mulatto boy. Under Mississippi law, none of the three could testify against Winn, who claimed to be white. After two trials and failing to prove Winn mulatto, prosecutors dropped the case and the murderer walked free.
Johnson’s story, especially as told by the energetic and scholarly Schoby, is proof that skin color doesn’t determine character or cleverness. But, at times, it can seal a fate.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson, a syndicated columnist, lives near Iuka.. Write to her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.