William Henry Johnson, the first known African American lawyer was born on this day in 1811

July 16, 2019 at 10:57 am | History

Nii Ashaley Asé Ashiley

Nii Ashaley Asé Ashiley | Contributor

July 16, 2019 at 10:57 am | History

The story of William Henry Johnson is one that is wrapped in resilience, determination and a will to thrive in the midst of oppression brought about by circumstances, circumstances brought about by men.

William Henry Johnson represents for the African and persons of African descent, an individual who kept true to the Self in a slave-driven atmosphere, a singular act of rebellion that accorded him the strength to not only heighten his innate potentials, but use the lessons and skills derived from it to help raise the living standards of the masses.

Born on the 16th of July 1811 into the American slave culture of the times in the Richmond township of Virginia, his slave master, Andrew Johnson, recognized the glimmer of hope in a young black boy’s need to stand tall in a racially oppressive world, a regime to which he contributed his generous share.

Andrew Johnson thus maintained a degree of leniency with the young William who made quality use of the ‘semi-freedom’ afforded him by his ‘master’ as he hustled his energy on the horse racing fields for some income to support himself as well as the family. William Henry Johnson is noted to have submitted in his earlier years that life on the plantation was relatively moderate.

It is said that between 1827 and 1833, young William contributed his talent, energy and masculine skill to the progress of horse racing where he lived, amassing rewards for the master he served. His presence and skillset on the racing fields put him in touch with American dignitaries and government officials, notable amongst whom was Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States from 1801 to 1809.

These contacts coupled with the free-spiritedness of the horses he rode and attended to must have ignited in his ambitious self, a desire to carve for himself his own measure of autonomy and self-mastery, the latter part of 1833 thus saw young William Henry Johnson and his mother make an escape to New York.

His decision to leave the holdings of Andrew Johnson was motivated by his desire to not be used as ‘payment’ for his master’s accumulative gambling debt, and of course to seek out better living conditions as well as growth opportunities for future success.

William Henry Johnson conspired with the daughter of his slave master who aided his escape aboard a passenger ship bound for New York. But as the fates would have it, turbulent weather conditions during the journey marooned William and his mother on Long Island; however, they reached their New York destination as desired.

Life in New York for persons of African descent was one characterized by limited access to opportunities for improving upon living standards, but the young and fortunate William found a place by the side of a wealthy American business mogul named Jacob Astor in 1834.

Jacob Astor provided for William and his mother the needed avenue to ease down and settle into the hurried pace of New York living. This newfound opportunity was however short-lived, for William Henry Johnson was aided one more time to flee into New Bedford, Massachusetts when the so-called ‘slave-catchers’ came combing the streets for run-away slaves.

In New Bedford, Massachusetts, William Henry Johnson retained a greater sense of freedom partly because of New Bedford’s strong ties to the abolitionist movement and partly because it was in this newfound land that William Henry Johnson began teaching himself the fundamental principles concerning the discipline named ‘Law’.

William Henry Johnson steadied himself as a man by working menial jobs in New Bedford, a personal initiative that afforded him the means to tie the knot with his beloved Hanna Perry in 1836. He took on a second wife after the demise of his first.

During these years in New Bedford, William found himself a janitorial position in Timothy G. Coffin’s legal office where he used Coffin’s book to teach himself how to read and write. His newly acquired reading and writing abilities saw him in Francis L Porter’s legal space in 1840 and this is where he formally began his legal studies, finally realizing dreams of his childhood years.

By the year 1842, William Henry Johnson was well-equipped in those intellectual and practical skill-sets required of a practising American attorney and though his name was registered as qualifying for the office, history records that it was until 1865 that he was formally called to the Bar. The reasons concerning the considerable stretch of time between his year of ‘legal readiness’ and the year he was called to the Bar is not clear, but it most probably would have had racial leanings given his ‘status’ as a run-away slave.

Image result for charles cuffee
Charles Cuffee

William Henry Johnson represented the young Charles Cuffee who was charged with murder in 1870; a 13-year-old nephew of the infamous African-American merchant; Paul Cuffee. In 1880, William was further accorded a respectable place amongst the elected Common Council members of New Bedford, Massachusetts where he served a year’s term. He also served on several boards and graced several offices with his dignity, commitment to duty and compassion until his demise on 19th December 1896. Through it all, William remained a member of the Bristol County Bar where he was revered as ‘Squire Johnson’ till his final days.

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