Johnson, Amy (c. 1784-6 Jan.1849), free woman of color, property owner, and business woman in Natchez, Mississippi, was born into slavery. Little is known of her parents or early life. She was emancipated in 1814 at the age of 30 by her white enslaver, William Johnson, who was the likely father of her two young children, Adelia and William. He stated in the emancipation document, which was executed in Concordia Parish, Louisiana, that in consideration of five dollars he 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 the age of thirteen in 1818. Her son, also called William Johnson, was emancipated two years after this in 1820 at the age of 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 enslaved and complete freedom. There were many constraints with which free people of color had to contend that limited the rights of free people of color, including: restricted occupations, limited mobility, and prohibitions on the right to vote and to testify against whites, to name a few. However, within this proscribed 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 likely peddled goods on the streets or maintained a small shop within the town by the Mississippi River. Throughout her lifetime, Amy was a dealer in small items and birds. No doubt Amy peddled goods to the Natchez populace to support her two teenage children and experienced some measure of success in this pursuit. In later years she and her family enslaved people for profit, more than likely 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, there were times when she 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 free barber of color Arthur Mitchum 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 pulled out handfuls of 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 significantly change. At this time, her daughter married a free barber of color from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, James Miller, who apprenticed her own eleven-year-old son William to learn the trade. In 1830 William bought his brother-in-law’s Natchez shop when James and Adelia moved to New Orleans. William married Ann Battles, a free woman of color, in 1835 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 vocalize her opinions and needs. William Johnson’s diary entries from 1835 until his mother's death in 1849 are peppered with accounts testifying to Amy’s personal strength of character in her business dealings, slave transactions and relations, and a seemingly difficult personality in general. She regularly had verbal altercations with a great many people, and not exclusively people of color. For example, she brought one of her son William’s tenants, white fruit proprietor Joseph Meshio, to tears due to her insistence that he owed her $7.50 and even at that, Amy refused to relent.
On one particular occasion, Amy fell victim to an act of violence emanating from her own child. In June of 1837, Johnson related how Amy had “commenced as usual to quarrel with Everything and Everybody” (Davis and Hogan, Diary, 183). This ensued into a particularly ugly quarrel, characterized by Johnson taking up the whip against his own mother as he “gave her a few cuts” as the most expedient way he thought 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 Miller intervened.
This diplomatic effort on the part of her son-in-law must have had an effect on Amy, for in a letter that Johnson 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 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 in character for Amy Johnson, which is made evident as William related in another diary entry 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 prior year at the age of 42. Her son 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. Oh my poor belovd mother is losst to me forever in this world.” (Davis and Hogan, Diary, 641).
Ribianszky, Nik. "Generations of Freedom: The Natchez Database of Free People of Color, 1779-1865." Journal of Slavery and Data Preservation4, no. 1 (2023): 11- 23. https://doi.org/10.25971/9k0y-s795
Ribianszky, Nik. “Generations of Freedom: The Free Black Community of Natchez, Mississippi, 1779-1865” generationsoffreedom.com
Davis, Edwin Adams and William Ransom Hogan. The Barber of Natchez (1954).
Davis, Edwin Adams and William Ransom Hogan. William Johnson's Natchez: The Antebellum Diary of a Free Negro (1951).
Davis, Ronald L. F. The Black Experience in Natchez, 1720-1880 (1999).
Gould, Virginia Meacham. Chained to the Rock of Adversity: To be Free, Black, & Female in the Old South (1998).