Why does it take a cross-country road trip to learn about pockets of unsung history, which helped shaped this nation? I think I answered my own question. There are so many pieces of these small American towns that were left out of our school textbooks. Was this history not worthy to those who wrote these books? We recently went to see Hidden Figures, what a beautiful story. It’s about three women of color who make their mark at NASA, on Friendship 7 and all who followed in their footsteps. Why didn’t we learn about these women in grade school? Certainly they were pivotal in the space program’s success.
Mark Twain’s quote about travel resonates even deeper now, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
Here in lies one of the many reasons why we are road-tripping the US; to open our eyes to history and be a part of what is currently making history. Fortunately, we have a front seat to many historical stories. We owe a lot of what we are learning to the National Historical Parks preservation programs.
Today we visited Natchez, Mississippi – right on the Mississippi/Louisiana border. The views are beautiful and we were able to walk along the river’s edge all while learning some southern history. Few cities offer and in-depth look at the past and present Southern lifestyle like Natchez. You can walk in the footsteps of Southern belles, cotton barons, Civil War soldiers, and Civil Rights pioneers. There were so many historical landmarks to learn about, but there were two topics that struck chords.
The Natchez were the original residents of Mississippi and Louisiana, but of course. The more you read about the Native Americans, the sadder you get, especially when you travel every state and learn about their demise. Gigi just finished an Indian project and she is very interested in learning more about the Indians who lived in the states we travel. The French defeated the Natchez tribe in the early 1700's, and the survivors scattered. People of Natchez descent live in many different places today, but most of them live among the Chicksaw, Creek and Cherokee tribes of Oklahoma.
The Barber of Natchez – The William Johnson House
It was so nice to learn about free blacks living in the pre civil war South, as this part of history has not been very well documented. In particular we learned about one who paved the way in a time when it seemed impossible to be free.
We were able to tour William Johnson's house and learn about the impact he made in our history and today...
Known as the “barber” of Natchez, William Johnson began his life as a slave. He was freed at age eleven, so was his mother Amy and his sister Adelia. Johnson bought the barbershop he worked in 1830 for three hundred dollars. He taught the trade to free black boys and actually had 16 slaves himself. It was at this time, Johnson started journaling his life and that of Natchez.
Johnson was a prominent citizen in the community of Natchez where 3,000 whites, 1,600 slaves and 200 free blacks lived and worked. By 1835, his three hundred dollar investment had grown to almost three thousand. He was intelligent, charismatic, well dressed, confident and had many great relations with all throughout the town. He married Ann Battles, also a free black, in 1835. Their eleventh child was born in 1851, just about the time when Johnson was murdered.
In 1851 a boundary dispute with his neighbor Baylor Winn found the two men in court. Although, the judge ruled in Johnson’s favor, Winn was not satisfied and shot and killed Johnson. Mississippi law allowed for blacks to testify against whites in civil cases, but not in criminal cases. Two hung juries could not decide if Winn, a mulatto, was white or black, so Johnson’s Killer walked free.
Johnson filled fourteen leather bound volumes with diary entries. Today, his diary is an important resource for the study of free blacks, African –American History and American History in general. It is also an important part of his legacy and what sets William Johnson apart from other free blacks during the time period.