Episode 15: William Johnson Barber of Natchez

On June 16, 1851 William Johnson was murdered. 75 years later, his diary was discovered and became one of the most important firsthand accounts of life in the antebellum South. What was his story? And how did the man who murdered Johnson get away with it?

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This is the third of four episodes in The Mysteries, Myths and Legends of Natchez, Mississippi series.

William Johnson

In September of 2017, a friend joined me on the two hour drive from Jackson, Mississippi to Natchez. We had planned to visit a few historic site but decided to do something different. We agreed to stop at the Natchez Visitors Center, walk in, and find the first person to answer the following question: “If you only had a few hours in Natchez, Mississippi…where would you go?

When we arrived at the visitor center, that sits on the bluff high above the Mississippi River, we walked in to find a very sweet woman who listened to our question and immediately said “Have you ever heard of William Johnson, the Barber of Natchez? If you’ve never been to his house, that’s what you need to go see in Natchez today.”

I had visited Natchez many times but somehow, I had never heard of William Johnson or been to his house. I’m thankful for that sweet woman who directed us to his home near the corner of State and Canal Street. It’s situated near an old railroad depot and it’s easy to miss. The home looks like a typical two story historic brick structure that serves as a business in downtown Natchez. Living quarters upstairs and business downstairs. It’s not a grand antebellum home that’s featured on Natchez Pilgrimage of Homes tours, but the story of its former occupant is one of historical value thanks to William Johnson’s own words.

In 1938 his personal and business journals were discovered in the attic of the home and in 1951 the story of Johnson’s life was published and released under the title of “William Johnson’s Natchez: The Antebellum Diary of a Free Negro”. William Johnson was a free man of color in the antebellum South.

Johnson worked hard to achieve success as a businessman in Natchez and between 1835 and 1850 he acquired three barber shops where a haircut cost 25 cents and a shave, 12 cents. He also owned a bath house in Natchez where 75 cents would buy you a hot bath. Johnson was known as “The Barber of Natchez.”

William Johnson was well respected and trusted in the community. Despite
this success, Johnson was a man between worlds. A successful free man of color in the antebellum South who was mixed race and owned slaves.

In the late 1840s, Johnson became involved in a dispute with Baylor Winn, who was also a free man of color. Their dispute was over a property line on his plantation. The circuit court ordered a survey, and in May of 1851, the dispute was settled out of court. Johnson no longer wished to be at odds with Winn and wanted peace. But peace would not become a reality.

On June 16, 1851, Johnson was murdered by Winn.

What happened next is a reminder that justice for a man of color, whether free or enslaved at this time in Mississippi, was hard to come by.

Episode Sources
Papers and Diary of William T. Johnson. Louisiana Digital Library
Salvatore, N. (1995). [Review of the book William Johnson’s Natchez: The ante-bellum diary of a free Negro] [Electronic version]. African American Review 29(4), 676-678.
William Johnson Home National Park Service Visitor Info
National Humanities PDF of Notable Entries from Diary of William Johnson
Did Black People Own Slaves The Root. 3 March 2014
1840 Presidential Election
Dreadful Murder in Natchez. The Concordian Intelligencier. 21 June 1851

Episode Sources
Papers and Diary of William T. Johnson. Louisiana Digital Library
Salvatore, N. (1995). [Review of the book William Johnson’s Natchez: The ante-bellum diary of a free Negro] [Electronic version]. African American Review 29(4), 676-678.
William Johnson Home National Park Service Visitor Info
National Humanities PDF of Notable Entries from Diary of William Johnson
Did Black People Own Slaves The Root. 3 March 2014
1840 Presidential Election
Dreadful Murder in Natchez.

Music Credits
Theme Song: “Dark & Troubled” by Panthernburn. Special thanks to Phillip St Ours for permission for use

Additional Music
Southern Man “Southern Man”, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution. Kevin MacLeod “Sovereign”, “Cryptic Sorrow”, “Wounded”, “Nervous”, “Sad Trio” Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution