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  • The Death of James Johnson*
  • Shane White** (bio)

They used to hang Negroes in New York City. This article is about the hanging of one of them—it is also a story of black New York. James Johnson, my subject, was born a slave on Greatneck, Long Island on the first of February 1780. At age sixteen, he was freed under the terms of his master John Serrez’s will, and soon after that he managed to obtain work with a Mr. Pascale, a weaver living near Rockaway, “where he remained with credit and reputation for 7 years.” Johnson then moved to Hempstead and spent the next two years laboring on various farms in the area. Sometime about 1805, he made his way to New York City, and once there began to pick up work on the flotilla of small craft operating out of the port city, mainly those of a Mr. Hogeboom, whose vessels plied their trade on the North River. 1

James Johnson was a member of the first generation of free blacks in New York City, and what little we know of the first thirty years of his life certainly conforms to a more general pattern. Born around the time of the Revolution, for the most part, these slaves attained their freedom—occasionally by outright manumission, more commonly by negotiating some sort of a deal with their owners—in the 1790s, or in the first few years of the nineteenth century. Those among them who had been city slaves tended to stay where they were, but those from the countryside often shifted round for a time—the desire to move from the area where they had been enslaved appears to have been overwhelming—before eventually succumbing to the attractions of the metropolis. Having done so, however, they often found, as did Johnson, that their skills were of little use. Many were therefore forced to eke out a living [End Page 753] working on the docks, or “along shore,” as it was known. It made for a precarious existence, continually threatened by hard economic times (the embargo was a disaster for many blacks), long winters, injuries, which were frequent enough for manual workers, and bouts of illness. 2

If the first three decades of James Johnson’s life were scarcely distinguishable from those of many African New Yorkers of his era, the final three months were altogether another matter. In the early hours of Wednesday, 24 October 1810, at what the newspapers called a “negro dancing house” in Chapel Street, an intoxicated Johnson was involved in a brawl with another black man, Lewis Robinson, in the course of which Johnson grabbed an oyster knife and stabbed Robinson in the thigh near the groin, causing him to bleed to death. Johnson was taken by the watch, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. On 25 January 1811, a few days short of his 31st birthday, he was marched up to a small rise near present-day Greenwich Village and hanged. 3

My concern here is not to rehabilitate James Johnson. He was no wrongly convicted saint or martyr to any particular cause. African New Yorkers were hardly likely to sing songs or tell stories about him—indeed, I am sure that within a very short time of his death he had been forgotten by all but his family. Testimony at his trial suggests that when in drink he was thoroughly unpleasant and aggressive, and there is more than a hint that his demeanor was not much improved when he was sober. Nor is there any doubt that, whatever his intentions may have been, he killed an unarmed man. My interest in James Johnson lies in the fact that his crime, incarceration, and execution caused enough of a stir to generate a paper trail that I can use for my own purposes.

Historians have written very little about the world of ordinary African Americans in New York City in the first four decades of the nineteenth century, preferring to concentrate on prominent black activists and members of the emerging black middle class, about whose lives sources are somewhat easier to come by. With the decline of slavery after 1799, the city...

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