Harriet Johnson was born enslaved in approximately 1807. When she was nineteen, a white man, William Cullen, purchased and emancipated Johnson and their son, Robert Loftus. The couple went on to have three additional children Mary A., William Fielding, and John Belzer, all given their father’s surname, and lived together until Cullen’s death in 1840. After his death, Johnson inherited his house on the corner of Franklin and Pine St. and a substantial amount of money. She then became involved with another white man, Thomas Dowling, with whom she had two more children, Thomas Joseph and Anna Celine Dowling. Dowling named Johnson executor of his estate and charged her with supporting and educating their children.
At some point, Johnson slipped over the color line. She appears in the 1850 census as a white woman, and all her children were listed as white as well. However, some residents of Natchez remained cognizant of her racial heritage, and on November 8, 1859, she was served notice that as an unlicensed free Black woman, she and her children had to leave Mississippi or be “liable to be sold into slavery.” Rather than complying with this order, she made the conscious choice to appear before the Adams County Chancery Court to “pass” as white and thus deny that she had ever been enslaved and was “totally free of any taint of Negro blood.” The court case that unfolded showcased witnesses who testified not only to an invented genealogy but to Johnson’s embodiment of and performance of whiteness in Natchez. She won the case and she lived in Natchez until her death in 1875.