A rare find

Published 6:09 pm Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Natchez — Perusing eBay for items significant to Natchez is nothing new for Paul Cartwright. But one recent search turned up something Cartwright had never before seen – a signed first edition of “William Johnson’s Natchez.” The book is signed by both original editors, Dr. William Ranson Hogan and Dr. Edwin Adams Davis.

“It was a very rare find. I’ve been a librarian for 20 years and do a lot of book appraising but I had never come across a signed first edition,” Cartwright said.

Cartwright and his wife, Yazoo City residents, have very little formal connection to the city but have come to love it because of its history. Because of that, donating historical items to the city is not unusual for the Cartwrights.

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“My wife’s father lived in Natchez in the 40s and my wife and I spent time in Natchez when we were courting, but we really just enjoy the rich history,” Cartwright said. “My wife is on the governing board at Rosalie and we will occasionally find and donate items to their collection.”

The book, fully titled “William Johnson’s Natchez: The Ante-Bellum diary of a Free Negro,” is a copy of William Johnson’s 14 diaries that were compiled over a 16-year period and document the events of daily life in Natchez during the mid 1800s. The diary, mostly void of personal feelings and reflections, is an almost daily account of the going-ons in Natchez and is widely considered one of the most significant pieces in antebellum history.

The original manuscripts were found in the attic of the Johnson home in 1938 and sold to LSU where they became the inaugural publication in the “Source Studies in Southern History” series in 1951.

Once Cartwright found the book on eBay, he knew he had to get it back home.

“I like to see items returned to where they belong and I thought this book belonged in Natchez in the William Johnson house,” Cartwright said.

So he purchased the book, for about $15, and set about to donate it to the Natchez National Historical Park, of which the William Johnson House is a part. Melrose and Fort Rosalie are also part of the park.

Representatives from the Natchez National Historical Park were thrilled to see such a big piece of history donated to the museum.

“The book isn’t just important to the history of Natchez but also to antebellum history because of the daily nature of his writings,” said Cheryl Munyer, curator for the Natchez National Historical Park. “Even the most simple entries give a wealth of information about the time that might not have otherwise been known. This is a very fortunate find.”

The rarity of the book made it a sure thing for the museum but Munyer isn’t sure when or even if the object will go display in the museum. Currently the paperwork to make the acquisition legal is still being completed, then the best course of action will be determined to maintain the integrity of the book.

“The National Park Service has pretty strict requirements for objects being accepted into the park’s collection. We have to get a deed of gift signed by the donor and then we will catalog the book so it can be kept up with ” Munyer said. “Once we finish the paperwork we will do everything within our power to preserve the book.”

Since the book is primarily made of paper, Munyer said the most important tool in preservation will be keeping the book in a stable environment when it comes to temperature, humidity and exposure to light. It is also key to keep the book away from pests.

Johnson was a freed black slave who became a success in the business world as a barber. Born in 1809 and freed at the age of 11, Johnson worked for his brother-in-law as a barber’s apprentice before purchasing his first barbershop in 1830. Prior to his death in 1815, he owned three barbershops and a bath house in Natchez where he himself worked and also employed other free blacks.

The William Johnson House on State Street is now a fully restored museum featuring historical exhibits in the downstairs portion of the house and restored living quarters in the upstairs.