Saluting a Natchez Renaissance man

Published 12:05 am Friday, February 6, 2015

Would you really rather be outside hunting and fishing? Do you enjoy the thrill of horse racing — or gambling in general? A good fight? How about plain ole gossip?

Do you get aggravated at your family — or those who work for you? Do you enjoy a good read — or political argument? Do you enjoy journaling about your day — or doodling while you think?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above — then William Johnson is your kind of guy.

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Natchez has been home to a host of unique individuals, but few that are more interesting than William Johnson who was born into slavery then freed as a child, grew into a successful entrepreneur and family man and penned 16 years of journals that continue to be published and widely read more than a century after his 1851 death.

Johnson’s life and art will be the focus of the final seminar leading up to the 2015 Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration, “Bigger Than Life: Extraordinary Mississippians.” The 2015 NLCC will be hosted February 26-28; information is available at

The Johnson seminar will take place from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday; it is free of charge.

The first portion of the event, beginning at 2 p.m., will be hosted at the George W. Armstrong Library.

A clip will be shown from the 1991 dedication of the Johnson House featuring Mary Louise Miller, a family member who grew up in Johnson’s house, as well as Sue Lyles Eakin, an archivist and history professor who spent much of her professional life processing the Johnson family papers at LSU.

Following a break, the group will experience a presentation entitled “Racing, Fisticuffs and Games of Chance: the Pursuit of Pleasure in Antebellum Natchez” that focuses on the early years of Johnson’s diary (1835-1837) — his written descriptions of daily Natchez life as well as his drawings that are peppered throughout his original diary but are not visible in the published book.

At 3:30 p.m., the group will walk around the corner to the William Johnson House at 210 State St. that is a unit of Natchez National Historical Park.

There, exuberant NPS Park Guide Barney Schoby Jr. is guaranteed to enthrall the crowd with stories from Johnson’s life by way of orientation, then participants are free to enjoy the site’s exhibits at their own pace. The first-floor holds modern exhibits that place William Johnson and his family in the context of antebellum Natchez — including an interactive version of parts of his diaries.

Upstairs, viewers can experience the furnished rooms as the Johnsons lived in them, including a number of pieces that are original to the family. Not only is this the only furnished Natchez tour home that belonged to free people of color, it is the only middle-class house with period furnishings that is open to the public.

For more information, call 601-442-7047.


Kathleen McClain Jenkins is Superintendent of Natchez National Historical Park.