“Can we walk across the bridge?” Mr. History Tourist asked the clerk at the Natchez Visitor Center. Next to the visitor center, there was a two-span bridge that crosses the Mississippi River from Natchez, Mississippi to Vidalia, Louisiana.
She looked like she wanted to say, “Why in Fort Sam Houston would you want to do that?”
But what she said was, “One of the spans is closed, but I don’t see why you couldn’t walk the other one. I’ve never seen anyone walking on it, but I saw someone riding a bicycle across this morning.” She asked the clerk sitting next to her, “Any reason they can’t walk across the bridge?”
The clerk next door gave Mr. HT the Fort Sam Houston look too, but agreed: “I don’t see why not.”
“I want to walk it – to walk to Louisiana.” Mr. HT turned to me. “Wouldn’t that be fun?”
By the time this trip came around, I had absolutely no recollection of why I’d wanted to stop in Natchez, Mississippi. No big historical event happened there, there were no significant historical attractions, and it wasn’t in a location that was on our way to somewhere else that had a big historical event or significant historical attraction. I was drawing a big, fat blank.
But since planning obsessive me had made hotel reservations six months before, we decided to follow through. I learned that Natchez had a National Historical Park and that the park had three sites. We could do those sites and fill in with whatever else – a bridge walk to Louisiana, perhaps — came along.
We left the car at the Visitor Center and walked a few blocks into the historic area, to the first NPS site: the William Johnson House.
William Johnson was born a slave in 1809 but was freed at the age of 11 by a master who was probably his father. He learned the barbering trade from his brother-in-law and ended up a wealthy businessman (and the owner of 16 slaves at the time of his death) and a leader of the free black community in Natchez.
Johnson is of particular interest to historians because he left a diary, recording 16 years of his life in 14 leather-bound volumes. “It’s most interesting for what it doesn’t say,” said Ranger Mia. “It’s a faithful day-by-day account of what he does. But he doesn’t write much opinion.” Speculations is that he was discreet because he didn’t want trouble, if the diary fell into the wrong hands.
March 27, 1838 Steven ran off Last night and God Only Knows where he has gone to, for I dont, tho if I should have the Good Luck to Get Him again I will be very apt to Hurt his Feelings — This is the second time he has ranaway in a week.
The photo above is of a reproduction. The actual diaries belong to Louisiana State University.
The house was owned by the Johnson family until 1976, and much of the furniture in the house belonged to William Johnson and his immediate family. In William and Ann Johnson’s bedroom, the bed, dresser, washstand and armoire were theirs. In the parlor below, the gilded mirror, the side board and the bookcase with Johnson family books in it, all belonged to William.
The family sold the house to the local preservation society, which donated it to the city, which donated it to the NPS. The NPS did extensive preservation work on it, and opened it as a museum in 2005.
Johnson was murdered, at age 42, by his neighbor Baylor Winn. Johnson and Winn were having a land dispute, and Winn stabbed Johnson in front of several witnesses. Winn got away with it, though, by playing the race card: he claimed to be half-white and half-Native American (he was really half white and half black). Being white and Native American made Winn white under the law. And because blacks weren’t allowed to testify against whites, the statements of the witnesses, who were all black (to some extent), were disallowed.
Johnson’s diary was published by the University of Louisiana Press in 1951 as William Johnson’s Natchez: The Antebellum Diary of a Free Negro. It’s available on Amazon.