Justice for William Johnson and Trayvon Martin

The murder weapon?

One aspect of research that amazes me is that historical events I come across are often remarkably similar to news of the day. It reminds me of old saws about history repeating itself and the more things change.

One of the biggest news stories today revolves around Trayvon Martin, the black teenager who was shot in Florida by a local white watchdog/vigilante. People of all political stripes agree that if racial identities were reversed, the gunman would be in jail.

The journal of William Johnson I recently got in the mail abruptly stops at June 14, 1851. Known as the “Barber of Natchez,” Mr. Johnson was a prominent member of the free black community in antebellum Mississippi. As I mentioned in my last post, he wrote of his day-to-day business and personal dealings for fifteen years. He is not my ancestor, but wrote of my ancestors in his diary.

He was only forty-two when he stopped writing and I wanted to know what happened. As you might guess, he died–but not of natural causes.

According to the Natchez Courier of June 20, 1851, “Our city was very much excited on Tuesday morning, by hearing what could only be deemed a horrible and deliberate murder had been committed upon an excellent and most inoffensive man. It was ascertained that William Johnson, a free man of color born and raised in Natchez, and holding a respected position on account of his character, intelligence and deportment, had been shot.”

Apparently, he and a fellow named Baylor Winn had not gotten along for some time. On this day, they were arguing over a boundary when Winn shot and killed Johnson. Winn was arrested and put on trial three separate times, keeping him in jail for two years. But then he was released.

Why? Because the courts could not decide what race he was. Although he was thought by all to be of mixed white and African American blood–hence, black–he claimed to be of white and Native American heritage. Mississippi law prohibited black people from testifying against whites. Since the only witnesses to the murder were black, no one could testify against Winn, and he was acquitted.

Today, we have a kid who was targeted for “looking suspicious.” His “crime” appears to be “Walking While Black.“ One television commentator even opined that Martin brought it on himself by wearing a hoodie. (I wear hoodies all winter long.) We don’t know all the details yet, and Zimmerman (the Florida gunman) has yet to be arrested or tried, but it sure seems like he is getting a pass men of color could not expect.

Winn sat in jail for two years, as the system tried to get justice in an unfair world. In my opinion, even if found that Zimmerman acted in self-defense as he claims, let’s get it all out in a court of law.

Apparently today, as in 1851, our stereotypes and misconceptions have us tied up in knots.

*Information on William Johnson’s death came from the website “Natchez City Cemetery” at http://www.natchezcemetery.com/custom/webpage.cfm?content=News&id=40

What’s the Big Idea?

Don’t just lay there–do something!
Years ago, I took one of those quizzes in I-can’t-remember-which writing magazine that rated my creativity on par with a zucchini.
Maybe that’s why I like to base my stories on actual historical occurrences. Little known stories from our hometown newspaper and county library have generated interesting ideas for me.
My first book, The Least of These, came from the memoir of nearly-forgotten Tarleton Brown, the local Revolutionary War hero here in Barnwell, South Carolina. Even our esteemed state historian, Walter Edgar, not only omitted him from his tome, South Carolina: A History, but also from his book that focused solely on the American Revolution, Partisans & Redcoats.
In 1843, a veteran of the South Carolina Rangers, Colonel Tarleton Brown, published his memoirs in a short-lived newspaper known as the Charleston Rambler. He described in fascinating detail his Revolutionary War exploits in Barnwell, at that time considered a backwoods, frontier region. No famous battles occurred, but the fighting was fierce and real people suffered.
Tarleton Brown tells the story of the aftermath of 1781’s Siege of Augusta, Georgia, when he decided to “peep” into the fort they overtook. “…[B]ut it was a sore peep to me, as I took small-pox from it.”
Since no one in his family had ever had the disease, he hired Peggy Ogleby to care for him under a large oak tree. “This slut was a Tory, and informed her clan where I was. They said they would come and kill the d—n rebel, but as I had an invisible and Almighty Protector, they had not the power to execute their malicious design.”
A more modern edition of
Tarleton Brown’s memoirs
Apparently in 1843, he was still pretty pissed off about it. Somewhat vague about his method of escape, though.
My husband is an amateur historian and, through some research, discovered a treatise in our library recounting local history. The Village of Barnwell by William Hansford Duncan had originally been printed some time between 1912 and 1915.
This source tells a story of Tarleton Brown not found in his memoirs. He had been captured by Tories, it seems, and scheduled to hang. But the captors wanted to celebrate with a few whiskeys first, giving Brown the opportunity to gallop off on the horse to which he was tied.
To me, both these stories seem to leave something out—the likelihood of outside help in Tarleton’s escapes. Why not, then, have an ordinary young girl, very much “under the radar” in the society of the day, become integral in helping this Patriot fight the good fight? This girl would be very poor and considered beneath the consideration of those around her, yet she would be an invisible hero.
This was the seed I planted to “grow” The Least of These, a book I am re-writing for the third time. They say it’s the charm.