Saturday’s William Johnson House opening three decades in making

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 14, 2005

Almost 30 years after its purchase by dedicated preservationists, after insistent lobbying at the state and national level and after more than a decade of research and construction, a new Natchez National Historical Park site has been born.

Well over 300 people attended a Saturday ceremony &045; at the convention center, due to the threat of rain &045; and ribbon cutting at the William Johnson House itself to mark the house’s official opening as an interpretive center.

William Johnson, a free black man and a successful barber in pre-Civil War Natchez, kept an exhaustive diary of his life and times that was finally published in the 1950s. The house at 210 State St., built in 1841, served as home to Johnson’s family for 134 years.

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&uot;There are many (National Park Service) sites that talk about black history, but this one stands out in telling the story of free black people in pre-Civil War times,&uot; said Park Service Executive Director Fran Mainella.

&uot;(Johnson) was literate and able to tell the story not just of himself, but of Š Natchez. So this makes it a unique site throughout the entire national park system &045; that and the fact that the entire community partnered to make it happen.&uot;

The Johnson House contains exhibit relating to Johnson and the family life and Natchez society of his time. Those exhibits include a touch screen with quotes from Johnson, a tactile exhibit for the blind, original court papers from the Johnson murder trial and historic paintings of Natchez. An upstairs room is furnished as a bedroom would have been at that time.

It took $2.25 million and three years of research and construction to restore the Johnson House and adjacent McCallum House, now part of the Natchez National Historical Park along with antebellum house Melrose and Fort Rosalie.

Margaret Moss, former president of the Natchez Garden Club, said that when the club, through the Preservation Society of Ellicott Hill, bought the property in 1976, &uot;we didn’t know an angel (the Park Service) was coming to help us.&uot;

The City of Natchez bought the property, with the aid of federal grants and other assistance, then donated the Johnson and McCallum houses to the Natchez National Historical Park in 1990.

Former Gov. William Winter recalled that on the state level, the Legislature set up a trust fund in the 1980s for the project.

And Mayor Phillip West &045; then, president of the Adams County Board of Supervisors &045; recalled when he, Elbert Hillard of Archives and History and the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Brad Chism lobbied Congress in 1990.

West admitted to having mixed emotions about the project at the time but said he now realizes how historic the lives of Johnson and his free black contemporaries were.

&uot;They represented what was best in America and in the human spirit,&uot; West told the crowd at the convention center ceremony.

From the time public hearings were first held on the restoration about three years ago, it has taken $2 million to restore the house and $250,000 to fabricate exhibits.

Along the way some hurdles, including recovery of artifacts from the &uot;footprint&uot; of another house below the Johnson House foundation, had to be overcome.

Ron Miller &045; who, as executive director of the Historic Natchez Foundation, has worked closely with the project &045; said was &uot;full of praise&uot; for the finished project and those who made it happen.

&uot;They created a perfect window into the life of a free black man in the antebellum South,&uot; Miller said.

&uot;I was astounded when I walked into (the Johnson House) for the first time. Š It’s not distant, but immediate and interactive. I felt almost as if I could touch their lives. That’s the dream of 30 years ago, now realized.&uot;

It was also the dream of at least 10 of Johnson’s descendants. They were among hundreds of people who crammed into the center after Saturday’s ribbon cutting to view exhibits, furnishings and the renovated building itself.

&uot;What a pleasure it is to come back to the place I call home,&uot; said Johnson descendant Mary Louise Miller, 90, of Yazoo City. Pointing to a nearby corner, she added, &uot;That was where I gave birth to one of my children.&uot;

&uot;It’s been a long time coming,&uot; said Johnson descendant Mary Hawthorne of Gulfport. &uot;And I’m glad to see it.&uot;

Except for a closing in recent weeks exhibit installation and last-minute decorating, the Johnson House site has been open to visitors a few days a week.

But the grand opening was delayed until Saturday to make it part of the annual Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration, which focuses this year on the lives and times of free black people in the pre-Civil War South.

In the foreseeable future, with funds available, the Park Service would like to place more exhibits in the kitchen annex behind the house, Park Superintendent Keith Whisenant has said.

But the next order of business, Mainella said, will be the park’s upcoming Fort Rosalie project, which is been tied up for years in legal proceedings.