The Barber of Natchez

Review of The Barber of Natchez (LSU, 1954, 1973) edited by Edwin Adams Davis and William Ransom Hogan.

Author’s Note: In 1938 a trove of documents dating from 1793 -1937, “over 60 volumes of account books, “nearly 1400” financial and legal documents, bound and unbound volumes of “rare antebellum newspapers” including 2 editions unknown before, “over 400” sheets of 19th century music, “, innumerable personal and business letters … in a word, the entire known recollections of the family of William Johnson, were found unharmed, at rest in the attic of 210 State St, Natchez, Mississippi. Today it is a National Historic site. William Johnson built the home in 1840-41. He was a man of comfortable wealth and social status in Natchez. Among the organized clutter was Mr. Johnson’s daily diary, a singular monument to his intelligence and accomplishments. It detailed his bon vivre as a free Negro in our antebellum South.

I

From 1835 till his murder on June 16, 1851, he wrote the most intriguing diary in American history. There was no pretense to a literary reputation. The spelling can be idiosyncratic. Many of his lengthy pages are mundane. Their value is in the success of his life and the details he brings to life about antebellum Natchez, Mississippi. When William T. Johnson was born in 1809, his mother was a slave of mixed race. His father was more than likely a white man of the same name who freed William’s mother in 1814 and their daughter Adelia in 1818. In 1820 he freed William.

His mother, Amy Johnson, listed in the 1816 Natchez census as the Head of household of a Free Negro family, set up a retail business and “by 1838 the Tax rolls listed her slave property as three women and two children, valued at $1650” (Davis & Hogan (D&H), 8).

She appears to have been inclined to litigation since from 1816 to 1820 she engaged as plaintiff or defendant in several lawsuits and her own children testified she could be tendentious.

In the 1820’s “the leading barbershops in the principle cities of the lower Mississippi Valley were operated by free Negroes” (D&H, 19). William’s sister, Adelia, at age 15 married James Miller, 20, a free man of color from Philadelphia, Mississippi.  Miller owned a barbershop and had a reputation for industry and honesty. William became his brother-in-law’s apprentice.

By the late 1820’s Miller was “the most widely patronized barber in Natchez”. In 1827 the leading citizens of Natchez petitioned the Mississippi legislature to “remove all (Miller’s) civil disabilities as a free man of color” except voting and jury duty. The legislature refused but granted Miller permission to remain in Mississippi.

In 1828 young William, age 19, still learning from his brother-in-law, bought a barbershop in Point Gibson 50 miles distant from Natchez. His dream was to return to Natchez. Meanwhile, James Miller, despite his financial and business position, formidable as any free man of color in Natchez, dreamt to locate in New Orleans. In late 1830 Miller’s dream came true. He sold to William his enterprise in Natchez and he and Adelia went to New Orleans. William Johnson’s meticulous papers show the first purchases for his new shop “were a dozen razors, a razor strop, and two bottles of bear’s oil to be used as a pomade for men’s hair,” (D&H, 2).

In 1832 the Adams County Court and Police Board “licensed (William) to remain in the State, for he had ‘Satisfied the Court of his Good Character'” (D&H, 21). In 1833 he bought the property he had been leasing for his barber business. In 1834 Adams County listed him as “owning one lot worth $2700 and three slaves.”

*******

The authors do not address why James Miller and William Johnson, both born in Mississippi and both free, needed papers from the officials in Mississippi to remain in the State. The reason is explainable when you learn what happened with the rise of the Kingdom of Cotton. (Sources for the following are not only in this book but also four articles from the Mississippi Historical Society’s website.

Four mechanical inventions and the somnolent alluvial fields of the Gulf States, particularly Mississippi, though a frontier land in 1810, made cotton King. Mississippi had no cultural or governmental center as Louisiana across the great river to the west had New Orleans. But its soil was prime for short-stem cotton and destined her to be preeminent among the cotton States.

The cotton gin made available immense quantities of cotton for manufacturing cloth while in England the Spinning Jenny, Crompton’s spinning mule and Cartwright’s power loom revolutionized the manufacture of cotton cloth. These brought extraordinary profits beginning in the early 1800’s. The profits created a voracious demand for cotton. Land and slaves were needed to grow and sustain this new industry. The economics of cotton determined the economics of both land and slavery.

Beginning in the 18 teens a great migration took place. The North literally invaded the South in search of wealth from cotton. They came on the make; some with their own still unemancipated slaves while other Northern slaves joined them, ‘sold south’ by their owners to avoid the emancipation deadline in their State. For example, New York’s deadline emancipation would not arrive till 1827. In 1850 25% of the population of New Orleans was Northern; in Mobile, Alabama, 10% were from New York alone. Along with these came whites and slaves from Southern slave states such as Maryland and Virginia.

In 1813 only Georgia and Louisiana of the Gulf States were in the American Union. The surge in cotton production and the necessary population growth to expand and maintain the industry spurred the Statehood of Mississippi in 1817 and Alabama in 1819. (Texas and Florida did not become States till 1845.) Until 1822 Mississippi’s owners could emancipate their slaves by decree or will and the slaves could purchase their own freedom.

Then Mississippi’s public policy changed. New laws required owners to petition the State legislature for emancipation. Free Negroes whether newly freed or already living free in the State needed legal papers from their County Court officially licensing them to remain in Mississippi. Free Blacks without this permission were sent with the assistance of the American Colonization Society to Liberia or sold as slaves on the slave markets of Mississippi. These court papers had to be renewed every year at the cost of $1 and always kept on a free Black’s person.

The change in policy wrought a sharp decline in emancipation and few, if any, free Negroes entered the State. For the law presumed a Negro was a slave unless proven otherwise as Mississippi worked to keep free Negroes at a minimum – an enterprise engaged both South and North of the Mason-Dixon line.

The numbers are telling. In 1820, Mississippi’s free Negroes numbered 458 and were 1.2% of a Black population that was 47% of total population. In 1860 free Blacks numbered 773 and were 0.2% of a Black population that was 55.2% of Mississippi’s entire population (791,305). Free Blacks had been kept out and/or shipped to Liberia more from fear than prejudice. As with every Southern State whose economy was bonded with the chattels of slavery, the clear tolling bells of Haiti’s slaughter of whites in 1804 and Nat Turner’s Massacre in 1831 remained in their minds.

Mississippi’s cotton output was overwhelming. A bale of cotton weighed 400 – 500 pounds. In 1800 Mississippi had Zero cotton output. By 1833 Mississippi sold 70 million pounds. In 1839 it was 193.2 million and in 1859 it was 535.1 million pounds, the greatest output of any American State. Within 40 years (1820 – 1860) Mississippi went from a backwater State to an agricultural epicenter of a worldwide economic boom of vast and increasing wealth and power. Mississippi’s economic life was propelled not only by the demand for production in Britain and continental Europe, but also, as significantly, by the financial and commercial enterprises of New York.

Northerners canvassed the Southern financial world of cotton. They arrived not only as planters but also as distant investors and absentee planters far away in New England and New York, looking intently on their cotton fields for their profits. Land was as important as cotton. In 1830 first the Mississippi government and then the US government demanded the Choctaw and Chickasaw, the 2 major tribes and landholding peoples in Mississippi, cede their lands to be purchased by Anglo-Americans coming to grow cotton.

Both tribes were divided on what to do: some of them agreed to move west becoming the first elements of the Trail of Tears, and some entered the business of cotton and, in general, America’s ‘free enterprise’ economy. Two of the largest speculator companies selling the newly ceded land rights were the American Land Company and the New York Land Company. Each represented investors from New England and New York. They were a critical part of the Northern migration South. It was, though, more an invasion of Northern capital buying the South.

New York, the center of the American Atlantic International Slave Trade in the 19th century into the 1860’s, was also the center of the American cotton commercial and financial world.

II

James Miller, his brother-in-law, had schooled William Johnson well in the ways, manners and inclinations of the free Black community and, equally important, the white community. Within the accelerated growth of population and wealth William Johnson found his way to success and personal contentment. His life and its success ran alongside the rise of cotton.

The year William began his diary -1835- he married a free woman of color, Ann Battle. He had met Ann when she was 14 and he was 20. Four years later they married. By all resolves it was a happy marriage. He was an attentive and engaged husband and a doting, present father. Together the couple gave birth to a family of ten (10) children. They lost one, a son named Philip, shortly after birth in 1844. All the children went to private schools.

William Johnson was an industrious man from a young age. He took advantage of opportunities and sought them out. A short man around 5’6″ and weighing near 140 all his adult life, he dressed impeccably and sported manners of a cultured, graceful, upper-class gentleman. He insisted his employees, whether free or slave, did accordingly. He became in Natchez and Mississippi a citizen of acknowledged influence and widespread fame. People white and black liked him and supported his enterprises. His clientele was among the wealthiest and enterprising in both white and black communities.

III

Mr. Johnson’s diary contains jewels of understanding among the ordinary daily bland. That is the beauty of this short book of 272 pages. The authors have culled the diary to present its information in separate chapters of interest. The chapters allow you to skip information you are not interested in and pinpoint information of special interest to you. Here’s are three samples:

Chapter ThreeBarbershop Proprietor and Businessman: Barbershops like taverns and coffeehouses were gathering places for social and commercial interests of all kinds. They were places for clubs to meet and men to discuss the news and deal deals. Johnson’s Barbershop, the most popular and affluent, was located in the very heart of Natchez’s commercial and governmental area.

The main shop was an Emporium offering specialized shaving kits, traveling barbers to wealthy men and baths to the dust-driven customers who walked the streets of Natchez. Today we take for granted indoor toilets, showering and bathing at will and a general cleanliness of streets and sidewalks. The authors note this was not the case in the 19th century, anywhere, including a robust, growing town like Natchez. The dirt and grime on people and the offensive orders of horse manure and other decomposing substances afflicted us every day. Mr. Johnson’s diary always speaks to the necessities of living as when he notes that the “French lady” partook of the bathing option at his Emporium. To increase his business he would ride to plantations to cut children’s hair or curl the hair of a young lady. Once, during a yellow fever epidemic, he received $5 for shaving a corpse. (D&H, 35)

Yet Johnson also built brick buildings both for business and for living quarters for his family. He closely advised on how the buildings should be built down to the simplest detail. The authors make the point that Johnson, a free Black and a former slave, spoke plainly and firmly to the all-white construction crew and its supervision. They listened attentively to his instructions and followed them. (D&H, 31-32)

Besides barber and builder, he was a lender to deserving clients even to the Governor of Mississippi. He loaned money to both businesses and individuals. Many were customers in his barbershops. And he was successful because he was persistent in his collections and careful in his loans. His loans were aided by the “gossip” and “discussion” in his barbershops where the character of men, both political and business, were easily detailed by other customers. Besides loans, he was a landlord to enterprises and individuals. Mr. Johnson was a replete man of business.

Chapter FiveJohnson’s Apprentices and Slaves: The holding of slaves by free Blacks in antebellum years is to our detriment often glossed by today’s popular journalistic history. Yet few historical truths give a better understanding of human nature. Despite protest and moral injunction, human nature means to survive and not impale itself on abstract morality. We bargain with the vanity in this world and make amends (most of us) best we can. William Johnson was not different. Johnson’s “restless economic enterprise and growing family responsibilities eventually led him in his last years to become the master of about two dozen Negroes and the employer of a few whites. Like any other man with expanding business affairs, a three-story residence, two aged mothers-in law in his family group, and a new baby arriving every eighteen months, he need labor assistance in quantity.” (D&H, 54)

William Johnson, the man who dealt successfully with white construction workers and their supervision, socialize and barter with ranking politicians including the Governor of Mississippi, who capitalized on the commercial and social stratagems of antebellum Natchez was not a man who tolerated illusions. He was conservative by nature and behaviour. He knew the Good Book as well as anyone but he also knew the vanity we inhale like fish do as they swim in the waters of their habitat. He believed in people while remembering people need law, tradition and order to prosper and survive. There is no liberty or personal success without them. Like everyone who lives in this world, Johnson compromised where necessary to keep food and shelter for his family.

He held slaves while giving a step-up to free young black men. His apprentices were sometimes free blacks and sometimes slaves, either his own or owned by customers who wanted one of their slaves to apprentice the trade of barbering.

Yet there is a larger matter here: Slavery continued into 19th century America because of the advance of technology and its companions: wealth and enterprise. For wealth always cycles with technology, while human dignity always plays a catch-up game.

American slavery was never an independent, American enterprise. Slavery was a mainstay of the African economy even before the arrival of Europeans. Slavery was embedded in African and European economic enterprise and policy long before 1607. And, as Jefferson asserted, it was enforced in America by the British government.

Slavery grew in America to undergird the foundation of American economic stability, South and North. In the North (with far more whites and far fewer Blacks) no one was willing to endanger this balance. The central government in the United States, where by reason of population growth alone the North was gaining control, had no political will to finance a change of our slave reality. In truth, there was no Constitutional power to do so. And Northern leadership, fearful of white backlash if blacks moved north with freedom, never sought to erase slavery’s transgression in a manner equitable to slaves and owners, free blacks and poor whites.

While leaders of both North and South tussled and taunted with that fundamental reality, the daily people of both races continued, working and living side by side, especially in the South where large numbers of both races commingled daily, not only on the streets but also in their homes. So, we read of familiar friends and benefactors back and forth across the racial barriers.

Chapter NineteenWhite Associates – and One Great Friend

“While the barber walked and talked softly in public, he lived in no pervading tension of fear that he would make a misunderstood move or fall into gesture or intonation that would offend a white man. He had amicable if ill-defined relationships with many whites of different classes and, while there were social barriers never to be crossed, numbers of these relationships were built upon mutual respect.” (D&H, 228)

William Johnson chose friends carefully, both black and white, free and slave. He avoided “white trash” and “black trash” as diseases against his own social health and the welfare of the Natchez community. D&H at 227 He did business and socialized with people who took care of their lives and approached society with the same care he did. Race and status were not barriers to him except as Mississippi’s laws denied his civil liberties. He engaged both races and made close, intimate friends across the social and economic barriers. For example:

William Thompson Martin, his favorite attorney, first caught Johnson’s eye in 1843 when he impressed him giving a speech on a “Bond Question.” From that evening on Johnson commented often in his diary on the young attorney’s progress. They were personal and business friends. Martin represented Johnson winning the real estate tussle against Baylor Winn, a free mixed-race black man, who several days later murdered Johnson and his son, Byron. After the murders, Martin was special prosecuting attorney in the trials to determine Winn’s racial mix after Winn declared he was not a black man but a white man. (D&H, 232)

Johnson’s family doctor was Luke P. Blackburn, a doctor who earned national fame for constructing the first successful quarantine against yellow fever in the Mississippi River valley. Blackburn cared for both Johnson’s household and his slaves. The men enjoyed a friendship of personal and business favors. Ibid. After Johnson’s murder, along with Martin, Blackburn remained in touch with the Johnson family and both were “extremely helpful to Johnson’s widow and fatherless children …” (D&H, 232)

Both men rose to greater distinction later in their lives. Born in Kentucky and after college moving to Natchez, Martin fought against secession but followed his State and became a Major General in CSA cavalry units fighting under Stuart, Longstreet and Wheeler. After the war he continued in political and educational successes. His home in Natchez, Montaigne, is on the National Register of Historic Places, an honor his home shares with that of his friend, William Johnson.

Blackburn was also born in Kentucky and also moved to Natchez after graduating college. He often gave freely of his time and professional care to yellow fever outbreaks. Though he sided with the Confederacy during the war, returning to Kentucky afterwards he became in 1879 the first physician elected Governor of the State.

As powerful and auspicious as these men were, along with others, Johnson had a friend who traveled the highest spheres of social and political structures, a man gifted with abiding intellectual talent and administrative energy, born to wealth and accumulating greater amounts in his career till punished into penury by the 1861 War. Enter Col. Adam L. Bingaman.         The New Orleans Picayune called him the “Napoleon of the Turf”. Bingaman enjoyed a national reputation for breeding exceptional racing horses. He was also the owner and/or administrator of multiple plantations and owned in 1861 over 300 slaves.

Though a man of imposing stature and accomplishment, famous in his time, he is not today remembered in daily society. Yet he was one of the great orators and politicians of his day. He became the Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives and President of its Senate. The only reason he never went to Washington was, as William Johnson noted in his diary, the Colonel was a Whig and Mississippi was Democrat. Johnson himself was a Democrat, once writing, “I have One wish and that is the Democrats will Get a Large Majority in every State” (D&H, 234). But Johnson was always pleased with his friend’s success. Their friendship included social and economic activities and endured beyond Johnson’s murder in 1851.

Like Martin and Blackburn, Col. Bingaman watched over Johnson’s family and insured Johnson’s widow and children were cared for and their financial resources remained intact. Even after the War when Bingaman had moved to New Orleans to live out his final days in far less favorable circumstances, he remained in touch with the Johnson family and did all he could to ease their burdens.

EPILOGUE

“During the entire ante-bellum period Natchez was comparatively free of Negro crime, by either slaves or members of the free Negro group, and a majority of the law violations were cases of petty theft.” (D&H, 150)

So it was a great and unexpected horror to Natchez that on June 16, 1851 a free man of color named Baylor Winn murdered William Johnson and one of Johnson’s sons while they were riding back home after a day outside town. The cause of the shooting remains lodged in Winn’s troubled mind. Clear as the murder was, Winn was neither acquitted nor found guilty of the murder. Johnson was a popular and well-loved man by every community in the town. But an unjust spectacle now took center stage.

Mississippi’s law denied blacks the fundamental right to testify against whites in a criminal case, so when Winn alleged that he was mixed white and Indian, not black, as everyone in Natchez knew, the courts determined Winn could not get a fair trial in Natchez. The trial was moved to a county where Winn was not so well known. In two trials to adjudicate Winn’s race, the juries hung. After the second jury, the charge was dismissed. Winn never faced justice.

This ghostly spectacle, so reminiscent of the murder of George Wythe and his nephew’s acquittal in 1806, again darkened the American sky. The Johnson family was denied justice. But William Johnson would have expected as much. He was not a man to tolerate illusions. Some years earlier, he had written, “This world is nothing but Vanity and vexation of Sperritt (sic) and that is all” (D&H, 260).

He was a constant reader of the Bible who believed in the Methodist persuasion and was buried by a white Methodist minister. “Shortly after his sister’s death in 1848 his diary entries reflect his strong belief in immortality and an attitude of prayerful supplication to a ‘Merciful Father’.”  (D&H, 260).

William Johnson was everything a man could be: born a slave, he became a community leader, a business leader, a peerless provider and head of his family, a man of eternal beliefs and endless moral courage. He believed in your dignity and my dignity and his own. He stood up for all of us. His life remains both history and a living parable of a great man’s moral and commercial success, his endurance and pride in family and country.

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