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Re: Jack Johnson's Ancestry
In Response To: Jack Johnson's Ancestry ()

I found the information I had on Jacks father from the book Unforgivable Blackness:
When a white man writes his memoirs . . . he anxiously begins with the history of his family from earliest times. It seems the higher one ascends the more interested one is in it. And I think that most authors embroider their genealogy. Basically, none of it interests anyone other than family members.

But I don’t want to exempt myself from this ancient custom and wish to say a few words about my genealogy.

Our [Negro] memories are handed down from father to son. Whites don’t think so, but we blacks are also proud of our ancestors and during long days and still longer nights, though we knew neither schools nor books, we still transmited memories of past centuries. I don’t doubt that the stories have been modified over time, but the salient facts remain. If some parts are merely fables it doesn’t matter much. Who can tell among the white stories what is fact and what is fable?

Facts about Johnson’s ancestry are hard to come by, and he was himself a cheerful fabulist when it came to retelling his own life. But the first thing he wanted people to understand about him was that because his enslaved forebears had arrived in America long “before the United States was dreamed of,” he was himself a “pure-blooded American.” And because he knew that that was what he was, he saw no reason ever to accept any limitations on himself to which other Americans were not also subject.*

Why he insisted on acting that way at a time when most American Negroes were relegated to second-class citizenship remains the essential mystery of his life. No amount of sleuthing will ever fully solve it, but a few clues may lie half-hidden in what little we know of his boyhood.

He was born Arthur John Johnson in Galveston, Texas, on March 31, 1878, the year after the last Union troops were withdrawn from the former Confederacy, leaving freed blacks to fend for themselves. His parents, Henry and Tina (known as Tiny) Johnson, both ex-slaves, did just that. She was from either North or South Carolina; government records and her son’s various accounts differ. Henry was born in Maryland or Virginia sometime during the 1830s; after serving as a civilian teamster attached to the U.S. Army’s 38th (Colored) Infantry, he settled in Galveston in 1867. His son loyally remembered him as “the most perfect physical specimen I have ever seen.” In fact, Henry stood just five foot five and was severely disabled by an atrophied right leg, the result of exposure to cold and rain and snow in the trenches at Petersburg, Virginia, that had caused the “disease of rheumatism” to distort his right knee—or so his attorneys would later claim in one of several unsuccessful bids he made for a veteran’s pension.

It seems he did attempt to get a Pension so there must be records in which I must locate and order.


18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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