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Amy Johnson

(c. 1784–6 Jan. 1849)

Free woman of color, property owner, and businesswoman in Natchez, Mississippi, Amy Johnson was born into slavery. Little is known of her parents or early life. She was emancipated in 1814 at age thirty by her white owner, William Johnson, who was the likely father of her two young children, Adelia and William. He stated in the emancipation document executed in Concordia Parish, Louisiana, that in consideration of five dollars he had liberated Amy, who would be “able to work and gain a Sufficient Livilihood and maintenance” (Davis and Hogan, Barber, 15).

Amy was listed as a free Negro head of household in the Natchez, Mississippi, censuses of 1816, 1818, and 1820. Her children were also freed by William Johnson beginning with Adelia at age thirteen in 1818. Her son, William Johnson (1809–1851), was emancipated two years after this, in 1820, at age eleven. The family helped constitute the free community of color in Natchez and surrounding Adams County, which was the largest of its kind in Mississippi, numbering approximately 110 free black people in 1820. The people within this Deep South community occupied a stratum between slavery and complete freedom. Free people of color had to contend with many constraints that limited their rights, including restricted occupations, denial of voting rights, limited mobility, and inability to testify against whites. However, within this environment, free African Americans used their limited freedom to carve out niches for themselves and their families.

In 1819 Amy established her niche by procuring a license to retail within Natchez and probably peddled goods on the streets or maintained a small shop within the town by the Mississippi River. Throughout her life Amy was a dealer in small items and birds. No doubt she sold goods to the Natchez populace to support her two teenage children and experienced some measure of success in this pursuit. In later years she owned slaves of her own for profit, probably utilizing their labor to aid her in the management of her small business as well as leasing them out to others. Besides maintaining a visible presence in the town’s commerce, she at times had to answer to the public courts. Between 1816 and 1822 she sued and was in turn sued, mainly over payments of debt. In 1822 she sued Arthur Mitchum, a free barber of color, for assault. She charged that in 1819 Mitchum had caused her great bodily harm when he beat her with a brickbat and his fists, and he pulled out handfuls of her hair. For this substantial injury she asked the court for damages of $500. She was awarded damages in her case against Mitchum, but only in the amount of $27.50.

In 1820 the fortunes of the family began to change. At this time her daughter Adelia married a free barber of color from Philadelphia, James Miller, who apprenticed Adelia’s eleven-year-old brother William to learn the trade. In 1830 William bought his brother-in-law’s Natchez shop when James and Adelia moved to New Orleans. In 1835 William married Ann Battles, a free woman of color, and eventually they had ten children together. Amy was enfolded within the family, living with them. All accounts of Amy Johnson paint a picture of an aggressive and outspoken woman who did not hesitate to voice her opinions and needs. William Johnson’s diary entries from 1835 until Amy’s death in 1849 are peppered with accounts testifying to her personal strength of character in her business dealings, slave transactions, and relations and suggesting a difficult personality. She regularly had verbal altercations with a great many people, and not exclusively people of color. For example, she brought one of William’s tenants, a white fruit proprietor named Joseph Meshio, to tears by her insistence that he owed her $7.50, and even then Amy refused to relent.

On one particular occasion Amy fell victim to an act of violence emanating from her own child. In June 1837 William Johnson related how Amy had “commenced as usual to quarrel with Everything and Everybody” (Davis and Hogan, Diary, 183). A particularly ugly quarrel ensued, in which William took a whip to his own mother, giving her “a few cuts” as what seemed to him the most expedient way to quell her. After this humiliating incident Johnson refused to speak to his mother for a month and a half until his brother-in-law, James, intervened.

This diplomatic effort on the part of her son-in-law must have had an effect on Amy, for in a letter that William wrote to his sister a month later, he related that “she has quit running out in the streets to complete her quarrels—now she does pretty well—about 3 quarrells [sic] or three fusses a week will satisfy her very well—and before he [James Miller] came up here she used to have the bigest Kind of a fuss Every morning” (Davis and Hogan, Diary, 45). Unfortunately it was a short-lived period of relative peacefulness, as evidenced by a diary entry he made two months later: “The old woman is on a regular spree for quarrelling to day all day—oh Lord, was any One on this Earth So perpetually tormented as I am” (Davis and Hogan, Diary, 203). But in spite of her cantankerous personality, she was much loved by her family.

Amy Johnson died in 1849 of cholera. She almost outlived both of her children. Adelia had passed away of tuberculosis the previous year at age forty-two. William was murdered by a neighbor two years after Amy died. At the time of his mother’s death, he related, “The remains of my poor mother was buried, oh my god. My loss is too greate [sic]. Oh my poor belovd [sic] mother is losst [sic] to me forever in this world” (Davis and Hogan, Diary, 641).

*From Nik Ribianszky’s entry on Johnson, Amy in The
African American National Biography Project
, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).


  • 1784
    Approximate year of birth
  • 1806
    Birth of daughter Adelia to Amy and her white enslaver William Johnson
  • 1809
    Birth of son William to Amy and her white enslaver William Johnson
  • 1814
    Manumission by white enslaver and father of her two children, Adelia and William, William Johnson, in Concordia Parish, Louisiana, located across the Mississippi River from Natchez. Enslaved individuals were periodically brought here to be freed because manumission laws in Louisiana were less stringent during this time.
  • 1814
    In the years following her manumission, Johnson uses the court system to pursue several individuals for assault and damages. In the first case, which does not give her surname but is highly likely to be Johnson, Amey vs. Davis, James, 1814, brought to the Superior Court of Adams County, she entered “a plea of trespass, assault, and Battery wherefore with force and arms he did assault beat abuse and mistreat the said Amey to her damage One thousand Dollars” against James Davis. The outcome of the case is unclear; however, it is the first example of how Johnson brought suit against individuals for damages against her person and property.
  • 1816
    Charges were brought against Johnson in The Territory v Johnston, Amey, 1816, accusing her of selling “Whiskey, Rum and diverse persons” without a license. In that same year, Johnson sued Alexander Hunter for $500 for assault and battery in the Adams County Superior Court case Johnson v Hunter. The jury found for her but awarded her only $25.
  • 1818
    When her daughter Adelia was thirteen years old, she was brought to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by an agent of her enslaver and father to be freed and then transported back to Natchez.
  • 1819-1822
    Johnson was involved in two court cases against free barber of color Arthur Michum for assault and battery. In the first, State v. Mitchum, Arthur, 1819, Johnson served as a witness against him with several other free Black witnesses who saw Mitchum attack Jane Merly (also known as Delia Black), a free Black woman. In the following year, Johnson brought charges against Mitchum in Amy v Mitchum, Arthur for perpetrating a violent beating on her. She charged that he caused great physical pain and damage to her by when he spit in her face, pummeled her with his fists and a brick bat, kicked her, pulled out handfuls of her hair, and tore her petticoat, shift, and bonnet. As a result of this horrific attack, she sought $500 in damages. The court only awarded her $.01.
  • 1828-1849
    Johnson became a grandmother to Catherine Miller, the daughter of Adelia and her husband James Miller, a free barber of color who moved to Natchez from Philadelphia in the 1820s. The couple moved to New Orleans after Miller trained his brother-in-law, Amy’s son William, in the barbering trade and sold him his barber shop. Over the course of Johnson’s life, she became a grandmother to nineteen grandchildren.
  • January 6, 1849
    Johnson succumbed to death by cholera as related by her son William’s diary. He related on the next day that “The remains of my poor mother was buried, oh my god. My loss is too greate. Oh my poor belovd mother is losst to me forever in this world.”

Further Reading

Davis, Edwin Adams, and William Ransom Hogan. The Barber of Natchez (1954).

Davis, Edwin Adams, and William Ransom Hogan, eds. William Johnson’s Natchez: The Antebellum Diary of a Free Negro (1951).

Davis, Ronald L. F. The Black Experience in Natchez, 1720–1880 (1993)

Gould, Virginia Meacham. Chained to the Rock of Adversity: To Be Free, Black & Female in the Old South (1998).


Court Documents - Amy Johnson vs Davis/James 1814