Mississippi Department of Archives & History/Historic Resources Inventory lists the former US Post Office on Main Street as 1905, remodeled 1935. The buff-colored brick building has a pyramidal tile roof, and the remodel was the addition to the right in the photograph above. It features a dentiled cornice and stone trim. The architect, James Knox Taylor, was the Supervising Architect of the Treasury. The 1935 addition was by Pittman Brothers Construction from New Orleans.
While preparing for my trip to Natchez this past week, I enjoyed conversations with many of my students and colleagues who had never been, and knew little about the place except for its antebellum houses and pilgrimage tours. I shared about the African American history and New Deal history, and encouraged them to check out those aspects of Natchez as well. I put together a short brochure of significant historic places related to African and African-descent culture and shared copies at the conference exhibit hall where my President duties had me working. Among those, which I will showcase in the next few days, was the former post office which is occupied now by the Natchez Association for the Preservation of African American Culture (NAPAC).I will come back to the history as the post office in a bit, but first, what was here before this spot was occupied by a post office? A plaque across the street indicated William Johnson’s Main Street barbershop had occupied the spot prior to 1904, and that he had also owned two other barbershops in town before his death in 1851.
He used both freed and enslaved black workers who served only white customers. In 1854, his widow built a new shop for her sons on this site, which was demolished for construction of the post office. (Natchez self-guided history trail)
The Natchez Weekly Courier (Nov. 22, 1833, p. 4) ran an ad for PERFUMERY and FANCY ARTICLES, ” which the subscriber can warrant to be fresh, and of the best quality… WILLIAM JOHNSON.” The advertisement included hair oils and “pomatum” (pomade), cologne water, shaving soap, and other personal hygiene items, including “artificial whiskers.” In 1840, William Johnson, Jr.,
Takes this occasion to inform his friends and the public, that he has opened at great expense, a new Barber Shop on Levee street, one square above the Virginia Coffee House, where he will be ready at all times to attend with despatch [sic] to those who may favor him with their patronage. P. S. A House and Kitchen to rent, enquire of WM. JOHNSON, Jr. (Mississippi Free Trader, Jan. 31, 1840, p. 2)
It was only in finding his death notice that I discovered that William Johnson was “a respectable colored barber on Main Street” when he was shot from the road side while returning to Natchez. He died at his residence in Natchez shortly after, but identified the man who had shot him, the young boy, Edward Hoggatt, who was with him, and also wounded the horses pulling the carriage. Mr. Johnson’s son was also present but not wounded (Mississippi Free Trader, June 18, 1851, p. 2). Before dying, Mr. Johnson identified his assailant as Baylor Winn, who was arrested and tried in Fayette. Apparently, “the great and exciting trial…was the issue made by the State to prove negro blood upon Baylor Winn, so as to bring him with the reach of negro testimony on a trial for killing the late William Johnson, f. m. c., of Natchez. The State failed in its attempt to prove him to be a negro” (Mississippi Free Trader, May 5, 1852, p. 1). In Free People of Color in Colonial Natchez (1700-1798), Christian Pinnen reported:
Free black people occupied the lowest rung in Natchez’s free society, yet they often did invaluable work for the community…Free African Americans, however, are an important part of Mississippi’s history, and by studying their lives, it allows us to open a window into a world often ignored by contemporary Mississippians…Unlike common perception–or misconception–Mississippi’s origins are not found in the mansions of antebellum plantations, but in the fight to survive colonial disorder. Free people of color were always a part of that story, and their frequent absence in Natchez’s printed history should be remedied. (2015, Mississippi History Now: An online publication of the Mississippi Historical Society.)
Mrs. Johnson sold their lands at auction to the highest bidder “on the east bank of the Mississippi river” which contained a total of over 1158 acres, along with the remainder of a lease of 99 years of over 400 acres (Natchez Daily Courier, May 31, 1853, p. 3). Two months later, Baylor Winn was arrested again for the charge of murder at the insistence of Johnson’s son, but Winn was again released because he was a “free white man” (Mississippi Free Trader, Jul. 5, 1853, p. 1). Part of the lands that bordered Johnson’s property was owned by Winslow Winn. Was there a connection?
In 1872, “one of our most quiet, industrious and estimable citizens–Byron Johnson, colored–lost his life” (Natchez Democrat, Jan. 16, 1872, p. 3). Byron Johnson was the son of William Johnson, and continued the barbering business in the new shop built by his mother. He also “had planting interests over the river.” Mr. Johnson had words with a Mr. Singleton (“a well-known colored man” who had a store and planting interests across the river) over the hiring of workers. Mr. Singleton instigated the confrontation (according to newspaper report), and although bystanders ended it, Singleton went later to the barbershop and challenged Johnson, shooting him while he was unarmed; he died on the scene.