NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: The Richard H. Johnson family

This photograph from Graves Studio, which operated in Lockport from the 1850s until the early 1870s, is among items donated to the History Center of Niagara from a memorabilia stash uncovered at 129 Spalding Street. The subject is not identified, but it's known that 129 Spalding belonged for many years to the Richard H. Johnson family, and it's assumed the subject is a member of that family. Historic materials relating to the African-American community in Lockport are limited.   

 

A number of years ago, a donation was made to the History Center of several photographs and other items found in a house at 129 Spalding Street, which at one time had belonged to the Richard H. Johnson family. The photos are not identified but the other materials, mostly postcards, are addressed to the Johnsons at the Spalding Street address. Some of the photographs were taken at studios in Philadelphia, a few were taken in Lockport and several, mostly tintypes, are not labeled. Many of postcards also are from Philadelphia or places near that city. Most, but not all, of the photos are of young African-American men, women and children. Although not verifiable, it is assumed they are members of the Johnson family and possibly relatives from Philadelphia.

At least three generations of Johnsons resided in Lockport, the first being Richard Henry Johnson and his wife Harriet Harris. Richard H. Johnson was born in about 1820. Most sources indicate he was born in New Jersey. Harriet Harris Johnson was born about 1821, most likely in Virginia. When and where they were married is unclear but by 1850, when their first child was born, they were living in St. Catherines, Ontario. At least five children were born in Canada. Richard H. Johnson first appears in the Lockport City Directory in 1868, living at 39 Cottage Street and working as a laborer. He was still on Cottage Street in 1875 with the same occupation. A few years later, the family was living at 65 Mulberry Street (now Elmwood Avenue).

It is interesting to note the similarities between the Johnson and Mossell families. Richard H. Johnson and Aaron Mossell were born about the same time (early 1820s), both were born free men, both left the United States and moved to Canada in about 1850, at the time the Fugitive Slave Act was passed (although neither man had been a slave, even free born blacks could be captured and enslaved in the South), both had five living children born around the same time, and both came to Lockport in the late 1860s.

Although Aaron Mossell became a prominent businessman, and Richard Johnson worked as a laborer, both men were well-known, well-respected and worshipped at the AME Church on South Street. Aaron Mossell left Lockport in 1906 and died in 1913 in Maryland at age 89. Richard Johnson died in Lockport in 1886 at the age of 66.

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Richard H., Jr., the younger of Johnson’s two sons, was born in 1853 in St. Catherines, Ontario. He was a teenager when his family moved to Lockport and was soon working as a laborer as well. Unfortunately, in the U.S. Census and in the Lockport City Directories, it usually only listed occupation and not place of employment so it is difficult to determine where all those “laborers” actually worked.

In 1882, Richard Johnson, Jr. married Joannah Wells, who was born in Lockport in 1856. They had three sons and a daughter. In 1894, Richard bought the house at 129 Spalding Street and occupied it for the next 30 years.

For most of those years, Richard, Jr. worked at a coachman for private individuals in the city. In some sources he was also listed as a gardener, as were two of his sons, Richard III and Albert. His only known employer was Mrs. Catherine Stephenson of 438 High Street, for whom he was working at the time of his death in 1924. His death notice stated that his burial would be in Chestnut Ridge Cemetery.

Joannah Johnson passed away in 1918 and their son Richard III died suddenly in 1919 at the age of 36, leaving a wife and two young children. He was buried in Cold Spring Cemetery. Richard, Jr.’s son Albert, and daughter Harriet, both married and left Lockport. His youngest son, Carl, stayed in Lockport and died here in 1927. The house on Spalding Street was then sold out of the family.

It is fortunate that this collection was donated to the History Center. Historic materials relating to the African-American community in Lockport are limited. First African Methodist Episcopal Church recently allowed the History Center to copy or scan some of their photos and other items. If anyone has any other photos, documents or other resources associated with the history of the black community in Lockport, the History Center would be interested in copying or scanning those items. Please contact the History Center at info@niagarahistory.org or 434-7433.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.

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