“I am always ready for Anything,” wrote William Johnson in his diary one day in 1845.
Throughout his life this singular man, who rose from bondage to a position of esteem in his community, sought new experiences, new knowledge, and new people. His almost naïve curiosity about all things is relfected in his diary.
William Johnson, a barber by trade, was by avocation an acute observer and reporter of the life and times of Natchez, Mississippi. He was also landlord, moneylender, and slaveowner, and small farmer and, by virtue of these varied and profitable enterprises, a leading Negro citizen of Natchez by 1845.
To aid in keeping straight the accounts of these thriving businesses, Johnson kept a ledge which soon became a diary, for his temperament required an outlet for his emotions and opinions. He has been released from slavery, but not from the bonds of convention that prevented a man of color from openly expressing his frankest thoughts.
Few occurrences escaped Johnson. Births and deaths, weddings and elopements, conventions and campaigns, races and cockfights, concerts and trials, balls and epidemics—all these and more went into William Johnson’s diary.
In a phraseology as candid and vivid as it is phonetic and colloquial, Johnson set down the whole of the Natchez scene for sixteen years. No other Southern diary provides such a broad picture of so many aspects of everyday life nor so much of the well-to-do free Negro’s attitudes on timely questions as this chronicle kept by a former slave.
Johnson’s diary obviously is one of the most remarkable documents in American historiography, and Allan Nevins, eminent historian, has called William Johnson himself “one of the most . . . interesting of American diarists.”
Edwin A. Davis discovered the diary in the attic of the house the diarist built in 1840-41. It is still occupied by Johnson's descendants, who consented to the purchase of the diary and numerous other items by the Louisiana State University Department of Archives, of which Davis was then the head. Davis graduated from Kansas State Teachers College and received his advanced degrees at the State University of Iowa and LSU.
Edwin Adams Davis was the head of the Louisiana State University Department of Archives. He graduated from Kansas State Teachers College and received his advanced degrees at the State University of Iowa and LSU. William Ransom Hogan was head of the Department of Archives at LSU and also served as chairman of the history department at Tulane University. He is the author of The Texas Republic: A Social and Economic History Ira Berlin is the author of Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America and Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves, winner of the Albert Beveridge Prize, among other works. He is Distinguished University Professor in the department of history at the University of Maryland.
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