Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Andrew Johnson’s Slaves

The Johnsons were slave-owners, but seemed to fall into the “good” category.  We learn this about one of their slaves, Sam:
From a photo of Sam Johnson, we see a distinguished looking man wearing a visible aura of pride and dignity. A letter from Andrew Johnson's son, Charles, paints a vivid portrait of Sam: "...a few days since Mother sent him [Sam] word to cut wood at Pattersons, - he came up in the house and said, he would 'be damed' if he wanted to cut wood there; and if you wanted to sell him you could do so just as soon as he pleased, he did not care a dam,' You will see he is quite an independent gentleman and just to show his notions of himself and his rights, at another time he was asking Mother for his part of some money paid him for work[.] Mother remarked to him if he was as ready to pay others as he was to collect, he would do better; he replied that he did not get half enough no how; - that he ought to have all that he could make &c..."

The letter is revealing. It shows that Sam was reimbursed in part for his work. He was able to keep these wages. It shows that Mrs. Johnson took care of some of the finances while her husband was absent. It also shows there was a degree of familiarity and assurance in the household between master and slave. Andrew Johnson's daughter, Martha, remarked that Sam did not belong to Andrew Johnson, but rather that Andrew Johnson belonged to Sam.

In March, 1867, Sam sent a letter to President Andrew Johnson. It read:
"I have been appointed one of the Commissioner of the Freedmens Bureau, to raise money with which to purchase a suitable Lot on which to build a School House for the education of the Coloured children of Greeneville - and my object in troubling you upon, the subject is to ascertain if there would be any chance for me to purchase an acre Lot off of one of your Tracts that lies out West of Town close to the Reble Graveyard. If you will let us have the Lot and will send me word as to the price of it I will send you the money, and would like for you to send me a deed to it. I am getting along as well as usual and have not changed any in Politics still being for you as much as ever. I would like to see you all very much" (Papers of Andrew Johnson, v. 12, pg. 183).

Johnson's response to Sam's request was to have a representative "select the lot wanted have it surveyed, plat made, and a deed drawn up...and send the instrument to me. I will convey the land to them without charge..." (Papers of Andrew Johnson, v. 12, pg. 237).
In 1871, at an early August 8th celebration, both Sam and Andrew Johnson were in attendance. Sam was the officer of the day, and Andrew Johnson addressed the group. In his later life, "we are told that Sam's aristrocratic feelings were revealed when, as janitor of a local church, he regularly wore a silk hat and long-tailed coat" (Papers of Andrew Johnson, v.3, pg. 405).
According to E.C. Reeves, private secretary to Andrew Johnson from 1869-1875, "On the day of...[Andrew Johnson's] burial the people came from the hills and the valleys; from everywhere near and far, until Greenville was filled as never before, and the cortege was so dense the marshals were unable to control the human masses and make a passage for the hearse which was carrying the coffined body to its sepulchral home on the way to the apex of the knoll which was to be the final sleeping place of the deceased, pointed out by negro Sam, a former slave, as having been so designated by his master..." (Stryker, Andrew Johnson: A Study in Courage, Appendix, pg. 836).

An August 2, 1947 article in the New Jersey Record tells of an auto trip of Mr. and Mrs. Fred R. Clark to Tennessee. "Mrs. Clark," the article stated, "is the daughter of the late Sam Johnson, ex-slave of President Johnson...She was the baby of several children; a brother and 8 sisters who have passed. Her father Mr. Samuel Johnson was a musician of note. He played a violin he made himself that could be heard for a mile around...The ground on which stands was given to Mrs. Clark's father by President Johnson's son, and was built by Mr. Samuel Johnson." 
You can learn about some of his others slaves there as well.

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