History August 13, 2018 at 06:00 am

The killer of this barber was freed in 1851 because a U.S. jury failed to tell if he was white or black

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor August 13, 2018 at 06:00 am

August 13, 2018 at 06:00 am | History

William Johnson --- Gale

Former slave and barber, William Johnson, gained his freedom when he was eleven in the free black community of Natchez.

He worked as an apprentice to his brother-in-law James Miller, before buying the barber shop in 1830 for three hundred dollars and taught free black boys the trade.

By 1834, Johnson owned three barbershops and loaned money from which he earned income from the interest he charged.

With wealth and a thriving business, Johnson married Ann Battles, also a free black woman in 1835 and lived an enjoyable life which included spending time with friends, going to the local horse track and betting on the races.

But tragedy struck in 1851 after a boundary dispute with his neighbour Baylor Winn. The case ended up in court with the judge ruling in Johnson’s favour.

Apparently, Winn, also a free black, was not satisfied with the ruling.

On June 16, 1851, while Johnson was returning from his farm in the company of his son, a slave and an apprentice, Winn ambushed them and shot him.

Before his death, Johnson named Winn as his killer, which led to his arrest.

But in court, Winn was never convicted of the killing due to one issue – blacks could not testify in court against whites (in criminal cases).

Winn had then argued that he was not a free black man but part white and part Native American.

The Johnson family was even able to procure documentation from Virginia that showed that the origin of Winn’s family could be traced back to 1802 in Virginia as free blacks.

Nevertheless, this evidence became inadmissible in court. The eyewitnesses to the crime were, therefore, not able to testify since they were black.

It is reported that since the court could not decide if Winn was white or black, he was set free.

Johnson, though a black man, at the time of his death, owned sixteen slaves, according to accounts.

His diary, which talked about sixteen years of his life (from 1835-1851) has since become an important resource for the study of free blacks, African –American history and American history in general.

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