Born into Slavery, Joshua Johnson Became the First Black Professional Artist in the United States

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States, Virginia on 2020-07-17 21:06Z by Steven

Born into Slavery, Joshua Johnson Became the First Black Professional Artist in the United States


Jaelynn Walls, Curator and Writer
Houston, Texas

Joshua Johnson
Family Group, ca. 1800
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Historians know woefully little about Joshua Johnson, the first professional African American artist to work in the United States. An active painter in Maryland and Virginia from roughly the 1790s to 1825, Johnson was all but forgotten until the middle of the 20th century. In 1939, Baltimore genealogist and art historian J. Hall Pleasants attributed 13 paintings to Johnson and began the long journey of reconstructing his career through scraps of often contradictory information. Even the artist’s last name is uncertain, and many art historians are still debating whether it was spelled “Johnson” or “Johnston.”

Johnson was born into slavery in mid-18th-century Maryland to a white man and a Black slave woman owned by William Wheeler Sr. Chattel records note his race as mulatto, though Maryland had no legal definition for what constituted “Black” versus “mixed race” at the time. Pleasants located documents variously describing Johnson as a slave, a slave trained as a blacksmith, a Black servant afflicted with consumption, and an immigrant from the West Indies.

While much of Johnson’s history remains mysterious, his special place in art history is assured. The next renowned African American artists to emerge in the United States, Robert S. Duncanson and Henry Ossawa Tanner, followed Johnson by decades…

Read the entire article here.

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Multiethnic Adults Grapple With Questions of Identity

Posted in Articles, Audio, Family/Parenting, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, United States on 2015-10-14 20:25Z by Steven

Multiethnic Adults Grapple With Questions of Identity

San Francisco, California

Adizah Eghan

In his 1964 Nobel Prize lecture, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. described humanity as a “world house,” filled with family of all backgrounds who must somehow learn to live with each other.

Within the borders of our countries, cities and states, our own homes are increasingly becoming multi-ethnic, multiracial microcosms of the greater world house to which King refers.

Today, nearly one in six newlyweds marries across racial or ethnic lines. If we continue in this direction, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that the multiracial population will triple by 2060

On the most recent episode of So Well Spoken, we dove into the complex world of multiethnic families, interracial marriages and cross-cultural adoptions. How do families handle racial issues and celebrate who they are?

Read the entire article here. Listen to the episode (00:51:26) here.

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The Mysterious Portraitist Joshua Johnson

Posted in Arts, Biography, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2011-04-10 20:25Z by Steven

The Mysterious Portraitist Joshua Johnson

Archives of American Art Journal
Volume 36, Number 2 (1996)
pages 2-7

Jennifer Bryan

Robert Torchia

The Maryland Historical Society’s Department of Manuscripts recently received three volumes of Baltimore County court chattel records—registers of personal property transactions such as mortgages, deeds of gift, powers of attorney, bills of sale, and releases of slaves from bondage. The earliest of the three volumes contains the bill of sale and the manumission record of America’s first-known black artist, the mysterious portraitist Joshua Johnson, who was active from 1790 to 1825. These extremely significant documents have survived through pure chance. According to the donor, M. Peter Moser. when the Baltimore City courthouse underwent renovation in 1954, many original documents were slated for destruction. His father. Judge Herman M. Moser, saw the discarded chattel records being thrown into bins and asked if he could have a few of the books, coincidentally saving the volume containing Johnson’s sale and manumission records.

Johnson’s existence was unknown until 1939, when Baltimore genealogist and an historian J. Hall Pleasants attributed thirteen paintings to him and attempted to reconstruct his career on the basis of fragmentary and often contradictory information. Pleasants characterized Johnson as a “nebulous figure” and he has remained so over the last fifty-eight years, despite numerous exhibitions and articles devoted to him. Only one of Johnson’s paintings bears his signature, Sarah Ogden Gustin (ca.  1805, National Gallery of Art, Washington. D.C.), and only one is documented in papers left by a patron, the well-known Rebecca Myring Everett and Her Children (1818, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore). His life dates are unknown, and historians argue over whether his name was spelled Johnson or Johnston.

Even Johnson’s race has been a subject of contention. The idea that the artist was black was challenged when prices for his paintings escalated on the an market during the early 1970s. The authors of a history of African-American artists cast stronger doubts when they noted the highly circumstantial and speculative nature of the “evidence.”* Pleasants had collected four different accounts from the descendants of old Baltimore families who owned portraits by Johnson in which the artist was variously described as a slave, a slave trained as a blacksmith, a black servant afflicted with consumption, and an immigrant from the West Indies. In the federal censuses for Baltimore of 1790 and 1800, a Joshua Johnson is listed as a free white head of household. In the most comprehensive survey of Johnson’s life to date, Carolyn J. Weekley discovered an additional family tradition that held that Johnson was black and one that identified him as a “red man.” Until now, the sole documentary evidence that Joshua Johnson was indeed black was the Baltimore City Directory of 1817-1818, in which he is listed among “Free Householders of Colour.”

The issue of Johnson’s race has sociological and political ramifications. His gradual rise from anonymity to prominence paralleled the civil rights movement and, more recently, the academic emphasis on multiculturalism. Influenced by this climate, historians have tended to romanticize the artist, often at the expense of historical accuracy. Johnson has progressed from being parenthetically mentioned in a 1954 survey of American art as “a colored artist” who “remained a true primitive” to being the African-American artist par excellence.

The chattel records conclusively prove that Johnson was a mulatto, the son of a white man and a black slave woman owned by a William Wheeler. Sr. On July 15, 1782. the clerk of the Baltimore County court enrolled two documents, the bill of sale and the release from bondage of a slave named Joshua, “now aged upwards of Nineteen Years.” The bill records that on October 6…

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