Natchez, Mississippi prides itself on showing tourists the antebellum experience. In Natchez National Historical Park, the National Park Service interprets two very different houses, one of a free Black man and one of a very rich family, the one percenters of the day.
William Johnson House
I got to State St. in front of the William Johnson House a little after 9 am but the house was dark. Fifteen minutes later, a woman opened the door to the brick home of Johnson. He was born in 1809 of a white father and Black mother. He was freed in 1820 but it wasn’t that simple. The white father had to petition the Mississippi General Assembly to allow his son to be free.
Johnson built his home in 1841. He was a barber, entrepreneur, and slave owner. He left $30,000, which might be $750,000 today, an incredible sum for a Black man in those times. Johnson kept a diary because at the time, he couldn’t talk about the issues of the day, which he might have been discussed in his barbershop.
The Johnson descendants lived here until 1976 when they sold it to the Preservation Society. In 1990, the City of Natchez donated it to the Park Service.
The second floor of the house where the family lived was closed. I spent some time reading the exhibits but I found Anna Tong, a volunteer, more interesting. She’s a retired medical technician from Texas who travels the country in an RV, volunteering for the Park Service full-time. She chooses a park based on location and recommendations from other volunteers and focuses on historic parks. She learns a new park by going with seasoned guides reads the written accounts of their tours.
Melrose, the townhouse of a cotton king
A few miles from downtown Natchez, a 1800s Greek revival-style mansion represents the height of Southern prosperity and the Cotton Kingdom before the Civil War. The house is part of an 80-acres estate. Ranger Stephens Don gives a lively tour of the house.
The name, Melrose, is taken from a small Scottish town. This is an estate or town house, not a plantation so I can’t compare it to Cane River Creole but it is certainly much more luxurious. The Park Service brought the furnishings and effects back to the 1840s. The family bought their furniture from Philadelphia and Boston and china from London.
The house survived the Civil War because Natchez didn’t provide any opposition. When 1,600 Union troops came into town after their victory at Vicksburg, they turned Natchez into a supply depot.
After the tour, I went back to the visitor center. Ranger Barney Schoby was behind the desk and I happened to mention that I had seen the Johnson house first thing in the morning. Schoby had really studied Johnson’s life and gave me a short lecture.
Johnson married a mulatto and didn’t really belong to either the Black or white world. “He only cut white men’s hair and lent money to white men,” Schoby said.
Free Blacks needed to carry papers all the time to show that they were free. “Even so, some white man could grab the papers and tear them up.” Johnson’s children were all baptized as Catholics. “Now why do you think he did that?” He asked me.
Free blacks tended toward Catholicism because in the Catholic Church, baptisms are recorded. The fact that they were free would also be recorded. The church would vouch that the person was known and was in fact free. Of course, Blacks were always second-class citizens in the church. “In modern times, Catholic schools were the first to accept Black kids,” Ranger Schoby pointed out.
Somehow, the topic got onto the Jews in Natchez.
“In 1830, the Jews were pushing a cart to sell their goods,” Schoby said. “In 1880, they owned every single store in Natchez.”
The previous generation might have called this comment an anti-Semitic stereotype, but I was laughing all the way back to my car.