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Slavery and my Virginia Johns’

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Arthur Morris Johns was born on the 4th of July 1871, in Blair, Washington County, Nebraska, the son of Anson Tinsley Johns and Mary Ann NewKirk. Arthur was a farmer, of English descent. He and his wife Hattie Garfield Bradley, also of English descent, had 9 children. Their daughter Isabel, my grandmother, had an interesting set of papers discovered in her belongings after she passed away. It was entitled, “Songs Mamma Used to Sing.” Several of the songs surprised me because they were Civil War Era slave songs. What were they doing in her stuff, and why on earth would her Mamma be singing them? Perhaps it was not her mother’s, but passed down by her paternal great- grandmother.

Arthur’s father, Anson was born in Amherst County, Virginia. He was born on 18 Apr 1828 into a family that owned slaves. He was the third of 15 children, but the last to have been born into a slaveholding household. In 1830, his parents John S. Johns and his wife Caroline Matilda Tinsley, lived in Amherst County and owned 21 slaves. John’s mother, widow Oney Garner lived close by and she owned 2 slaves, both of them children. Ugh, all pride in this family was lost! I wanted to stop searching and move on to another family- but this is reality. I decided to look this issue straight in the eye and keep searching.

John and Caroline’s 4th child, Naomi was born in 1833; not in Virginia but in Franklin County, Tennessee. This Johns family had left Virginia, and their slaves, and moved to Tennessee. By just before the Civil War, John Johns had moved again to Indiana. He died there in 1858. His wife and some of her children then settled in Nebraska, where my great grandfather was born, raised his family, and worked his farm. At least one of John’s sons, Wade Morris Johns, fought in the Union Army during the Civil War. After 1830, no record could be found listing this John Johns as a slave owner.

In 1840, the Amherst County census recorded only 3 Johns households: Richard Johns, John Johns, and James Johns. All of them listed only free colored persons in the household. Oney Garner had died, and most of the Johns family had left for Tennessee or North Carolina. Could these Johns’ be the former slaves of John S Johns? Did he free them? Did they buy their freedom? Were they given their freedom by Oney Garner at her death? Did they now own the land? I’m still looking for answers to those questions. I know one thing for sure, I can be proud of this Johns family for not just leaving slave ownership behind, but leaving it 20 years before the Civil War. I hope that he treated them well. I hope he left them in good spirits. I hope to uncover more of the story, and find all of their names. Those slaves may or may not be related to me by blood, but their lives were shaped-good or bad-by my family, and their descendants deserve at the very least, an equal portion of my tribute. I would cherish the opportunity to meet their descendants and call them family.

I was sad to find that my ancestors had been slave owners. Like many Americans seeking to build their family trees, I had hoped to be descended only from non-slave owning stock. We tend to want to pretend that slavery didn’t happen, or it did not affect us. The truth is, it did. However ugly it is to think about, America was not built just by white pilgrims and revolutionaries, and not just by the poor and huddled masses who came by choice, but it was built on the backs of American slaves.

“Oh, darkies say, hab you seen de massa

Wid de moustach on his face?

Go long de road sometime dis mawnin’

Like he gwine t’ leab de place!

He see the smoke way up the riber

Where de Lincolm gunboats lay-

He took his hat an’ he lef’ mighty sudden,

And I tink he’s runned away!

The massa run, ha ha!

De darkies stay, ho ho!

It must be now dat de kindom’s comin’

In de year ob Jublio!

…” author unknown

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