William Johnson's thirteen-volume, sixteen-year journal of life in Natchez, Mississippi, is the lengthiest and most detailed personal narrative authored by an African American during the antebellum era in the United States. Out of ordinary account books in which he tallied the daily expenditures and income of his early business ventures, Johnson's diary evolved into an extraordinary record of social, economic, and political life in his hometown of Natchez, Mississippi, as seen through the eyes of a free man of color.
Johnson was born a slave in Natchez, the son of his white master, William Johnson, and his slave, Amy. Johnson's father manumitted him in 1820. He was soon apprenticed to his free brother-in-law, Natchez barbershop proprietor James Miller. At the age of twenty-one, Johnson purchased Miller's barbershop, the first step in the young businessman's rise in the 1830s to a position of affluence as a property-holder, moneylender, land speculator, and slaveowner in the town of his birth. In 1835, Johnson married, completed a three-story brick home for his new family, and began on 12 October the diary he was to keep until the day of his death in 1851, the victim of a shooting over a land-boundary dispute.
In his diary Johnson writes most of the time as a self-appointed unofficial local historian. But on the occasions when he speaks of his own situation he provides a unique personal perspective on what it was like to negotiate daily the social margins of a slaveholding society.
Edwin Adams Davis and William Ransom Hogan, The Barber of Natchez, 1954.William Ransom Hogan and Edwin Adams Davis, eds., William Johnson's Natchez: The Ante-Bellum Diary of a Free Negro, 1993.
William L. Andrews