National Park Service renovating historic site

Published 12:01 am Monday, December 21, 2015

Walter Smith adds new plaster to the walls at the William Johnson House last week. (Tim Givens / The Natchez Democrat)

Walter Smith adds new plaster to the walls at the William Johnson House last week. (Tim Givens / The Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — Work is under way at a downtown historic house in preparation for the installation of new exhibits that will help tell a new piece of a story in Natchez’s history.

The National Park Service’s William Johnson House on State Street is receiving masonry and plaster repairs as well as the replacement of historic wood shingle roofs on the McCallum House side of the museum, which is next door to the William Johnson House and was owned by Johnson’s neighbors, The museum’s restrooms and visitor center are located on the McCallum side.

The site’s heating and air-conditioning system is also being upgraded to a more energy efficient system.

Masonry and plastering work in the William Johnson House and the house’s kitchen dependency is also being completed.

The work will culminate with the addition of new exhibits in the William Johnson House kitchen, which is not currently open to visitors.

Natchez National Historical Park historian Jeff Mansell said the new exhibits would tell the story of the Johnson family following the death of Johnson.

Johnson, known as the “Barber of Natchez,” began his life as a slave and was freed at age 11 by his owner, who was also his father. Johnson went on to own barbershops in Natchez and become a prominent member of the community.

Johnson kept a diary and owned 16 slaves at the time of his murder in 1851.

What happened to Johnson’s family following his death is a popular question of museum visitors, Mansell said.

“The family actually owned the house into the 1970s, and these exhibits will allow us to tell that part of the Johnson family history,” Mansell said.

The exhibits, Mansell said, will add another dimension to the interesting story of Johnson that sometimes comes as a surprise to visitors.

“Many people come here and they are surprised we have a site dedicated … to a free man of color, who was also a very important diarist,” Mansell said. “Many people find him an interesting, multi-dimensional character, and they are always asking what happened to this man’s family after their patriarch died?”

The William Johnson House kitchen will be opened to the public following the completion of the work and installation of exhibits.

The Johnson’s kitchen will not be recreated, as is the upstairs part of the house, but will instead be open for a self-guided tour of the exhibits.

The work at the William Johnson House is in addition to work on numerous buildings and new exhibits planned for antebellum Melrose, also owned by the National Park Service, and the Natchez Visitor Reception Center, Natchez National Historical Park Superintendent Kathleen Bond said.

New exhibits will be created for Melrose’s kitchen as well as a Fort Rosalie-themed panels to hang in the visitor center.

The total cost of the various projects is approximately $560,000, Bond said.