Thomas Johnson

Thomas Johnson

Thomas Johnson was born a slave at Rock Raymon, Virginia, on 7th August, 1836. His grandfather had been brought to America from Guinea, Africa. His mother was a slave but his father was a freeman.

In 1839 his father attempted to buy his wife and son but they were instead sent away to Alexandria. When Johnson was 12 years old he was separated from his mother when he was sent to work in Fredericksburg.

In 1852 he was sold to a family in Richmond. This enabled him to met up with his mother who had already been purchased by a man from that town.

After the Civil War Johnson was freed and moved to Denver where he worked as a church minister. In 1876 he became a missionary in Africa. His book, Twenty-Eight Years a Slave, appeared in 1909.

Primary Sources

(1) Thomas Johnson, Twenty-Eight Years a Slave (1909)

From what I have heard my mother say about her father, it would appear that he came from Africa, and was of the Guinea tribe. Both my mother's parents died when she was quite young. Her brothers and sisters were sold when she was thirteen years old. She often spoke of them and of the cruel treatment she received in her youth. My father was an octoroon, that is, he was one-eighth negro blood, and he was a free man. When I was three years old, Mr. Brent, who owned me, removed to Alexandria, Virginia. My father then wanted to purchase my mother and myself, but our master would not sell us. It must be explained that a free man was permitted to marry a slave woman, but the woman's children would be slaves. My father died when I was nine years old, he left money for me to purchase my freedom when I became a man, but the money got into other people's hands and never reached me.

(2) Thomas Johnson, Twenty-Eight Years a Slave (1909)

I can well remember when others little children and I were very happy, not knowing that we were slaves. We played merrily together, knowing nothing of the world and of the long oppression of our people. But as time passed on, first one and then another of those who were as helpless as myself were missed from the company of little slaves.

One day we saw John, who was much older than the rest, with a small bundle in his hand, saying good-bye to his mother, while a white man stood waiting in the hall for him. His mother and mine, with others, were crying, and all seemed very sad. I did not know what to make of it. A vague fear came over me, but I did not know why. We heard that the man who took John away was a "Georgia Trader," or slave dealer.

Whenever we saw a white man looking over the fence as we were at play, we would run and hide, sometimes getting near our mothers, ignorantly thinking they could protect us. But another and again another of us would be taken away. All this showed to us the difference - the great difference - there was between the white and coloured children. White children were free but black children were slaves and could be sold for money. What seemed worse than all was the discovery that our mothers, whom we looked upon as our only protectors, could not help us. Often we were reminded that if we were not good the white people would sell us to Georgia, which place we dreaded above all others on earth.

Thomas Johnson withslave whip and chains.
Thomas Johnson with
slave whip and chains.

(3) Thomas Johnson, Twenty-Eight Years a Slave (1909)

Hardly a day passed without some one of my own long oppressed people being led to the whipping post, and there lashed most unmercifully. Every auction day many were sold away to Georgia, or some other of the far off Southern States, and often could be seen in companies, handcuffed, and on their way to the Southern markets, doomed, doomed to perpetual slavery. So absolutely were the slaves in the power of their masters that they were pledged, leased, exchanged, taken for debt or gambled off at the gambling table; and men women, and children were sold by auction at the public auction block - husbands and wives separated, never to meet again, and little children torn from their parents' loving arms, and sold into slavery, and into the hands of strangers from distant parts.

(4) Thomas Johnson, Twenty-Eight Years a Slave (1909)

There was a large map of the United States hanging on the wall of the dining room, and each day as I attended to my duties I would stop a few minutes and look at the map. In the course of time I learned to spell the names of nearly all the cities along the railway route from Richmond to Boston, wondering whether I should ever see those cities where all were free. Never shall I be able to express my intense longing for freedom in those long, long days of slavery. During all this my heart was inclined towards "seeking religion." Some of the slaves sang so much about "heaven" and "home," and "rest" and "freedom," and seemed so happy that I often longed to be able to join them. Many of the melodies were sung by the Jubilee Singers. "The home beyond," where there was perfect rest and freedom and peace, and where there would be no slavery, was almost daily before me.

(5) Thomas Johnson, Twenty-Eight Years a Slave (1909)

In the year 1860, there was great excitement in Richmond over the election of Mr. Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States. The slaves prayed to God for his success, and they prayed very especially the night before the election. We knew he was in sympathy with the abolition of Slavery. The election was the signal for a great conflict for which the Southern States were ready. The question was: Shall there be Slavery or no Slavery in the United States? The South said: Yes, there shall be Slavery.

Of the campaign around Richmond I can speak from personal knowledge and experience. Richmond was the capital of the Confederate States - the States that wanted to establish a slaveholder's republic. The fortifications built by the compulsory labour of the slaves were massive and strong. This work reminds one of the great arch rebel himself who compels men and women in spiritual slavery to build up the walls of their own imprisonment against the army of liberty, and who also forces his victim to forge the chains for their own bondage and banishment from God.

The City of Richmond was the stronghold of the Southern States. I can remember the excitement among both white and coloured people in Richmond at the time it was threatened. All the coloured people in Richmond that I spoke to believe that if the North gained the victory they would have their freedom. The white people believed that "Cotton" was King, and that England would in time help them.

Whenever we met all our talk would be about what we had heard, and about freedom. Sometimes when we heard of other cities and towns having been taken by the United States Army, we became impatient, and talked of "running the blockade." At night we listened to the booming of the guns, and we were much excited. During the latter part of the Siege of Richmond the poor suffered very much indeed. Toward the end of March much anxiety and restlessness were manifested on the part of the white people. The slaves were joyful and expectant. My master used to ask: "Won't you fight for me, Tom?" And in fear I would reply: "Oh yes, Massa." And then I would feel how wrong it was to say what I did, as it was contrary to my intention, and I would ask the Lord to forgive me.

On Sunday, April 2nd, 1865, there was great excitement in the city, "General Grant had taken Petersburg and was closing in around us." This was only twenty miles from Richmond. In the afternoon many of the families began to leave the city, and late in the evening President Davis, General S. S. Cooper, General Lee, and staff all left Richmond.

About four o'clock on the Monday morning the great magazine outside the city was blown up by the Confederate troops to prevent the ammunition falling into the hands of the Northern troops. The large tobacco factories were set fire to, and the fire spread to other large buildings. At the break of day a coloured man was the first to carry the news into General Weitzel's camp that President Davis and General Lee had "skedaddled."

At eight o'clock in the morning about forty of the United States Cavalry of General Weitzel's division, who were already holding the north side of the James River, rode into Richmond, and proceeded at once to the public square of the capital. The United States troops soon took possession of Richmond city, and quickly restored order. The damage to property was very great. Soon the Stars and Stripes were seen floating over the old State Capital. The joy and rejoicing of the coloured people when the United States army marched into Richmond defies description. For days the manifestations of delight were displayed in many ways. The places of worship were kept open, and hundreds met for prayer and praise.

(6) Thomas Johnson, Twenty-Eight Years a Slave (1909)

The Emancipation Proclamation sent forth from the pen of Abraham Lincoln, who eventually fell a martyr for American freedom, was the sublimest and most important State paper that had ever been sent out from the Executive Mansion at Washington to the American people. This legislative act elevated Lincoln above the high level of America's greatest statesman. He was a man eminently fitted for the supreme position which he occupied. He saw the peril of his country and knew that the important moment had come. In taking the strong, wise step which he did, he saved the country from ruin and disgrace, and, thank God, made over four million hearts to rejoice.