By Nolan Cool.
February is Black History Month. Even though Black History is well-entrenched enough in American history beyond the scope of a single month, February is a time to contemplate, reflect on, and celebrate the accomplishments and crucial role African Americans played in building the United States. As we work to finalize our summer tour schedule for 2019, an emerging theme we’re embracing is the role of underrepresented peoples, places, and experiences in our architectural and cultural fabric. One of the lives we’re excited to explore and highlight is that of Isaac Johnson, an entrepreneurial stone mason and formerly-enslaved man who made the North Country his home.
Isaac Johnson was born in Elizabethtown, Nelson County, Kentucky around 1844 to Richard Yeager and an enslaved African partner named Jane Johnson. Isaac lived alongside three brothers on a Kentucky farm, presumably belonging to farmer George Peak, Richard Yeager’s stepfather. In his 1901 memoir Slavery Days in Old Kentucky, Isaac explained that his childhood house was “divided into two rooms, a kitchen and bed room” with a fireplace at one end, and a “foundation being large flat stones on which the cooking was done.” According to Johnson, ridicule from his neighbors forced Yeager to sell his wife Jane, and their four children to neighboring enslavers in 1851. Jane was auctioned off and sold for $1,100, and seven-year-old Isaac was purchased for $700. Altogether, $3,300 was exchanged for his family in Johnson’s telling.
Forced into enslavement, Isaac Johnson’s labor and personhood was purchased by William Mattingly, and later, Mattingly’s brother John, a white Kentucky tobacco farmer. Mattingly forced Johnson to work 16 hour days alongside numerous other enslaved black persons. In his memoir, Johnson poignantly remarked that slavery “not only degraded the slave, but it degraded the master even more.” During the Civil War, Union Army troops swept through Kentucky and Isaac Johnson successfully escaped to Union Army lines after two prior attempts. He travelled to Detroit and joined the First Michigan Colored Infantry of the 102nd United States Colored Regiment, and later battled Confederate forces at Honey Hill, South Carolina, where he sustained three gunshot wounds and lost a finger.
After the war, Johnson made his way to Ontario, Canada, where he took up work as a “lime mason” sometime during the early 1870s. Living along the New York-Ontario border, he met and married Theodocia Allen, a maid from Franklin County. For years, Johnson worked as a stonecutter across a number of limestone quarries between New York and Ontario. Later, he began work as a builder of stone structures, using a skillset that he may have obtained from his time enslaved in Kentucky. Between 1884 and 1889 Johnson completed four major projects in the North Country, mostly notably the Waddington Town Hall in 1884 (shown below). As lead mason on the project for “one of the best town halls in the country,” newspapers conveyed that “Mr. Isaac Johnson, a colored man from West Winchester, Ont. is the contractor and one of the best architects in the country.” Johnson completed many projects in and around St. Lawrence County, as well as the 1889 Churubusco Stone Church (Clinton County).
In 1890, Johnson and his family moved to Ogdensburg, where he lived out the remainder of his life. Johnson passed away on December 4, 1905 at age 61 as a result of a heart attack. The Daily Journal in Ogdensburg wrote that “Mr. Johnson was a respectable citisen [sic] and was well liked by those who knew him. He leaves a wife and seven children.” The mason’s funeral occurred on December 6th at St. Mary’s Cathedral in the city of Ogdensburg.
Johnson represents a powerful example of black entrepreneurship and resiliency in Northern New York, as he faced the brutal conditions of slavery and escaped to freedom toward a better life as a quarryman, stone mason, builder, and architect.
Virtual Talk: Isaac Johnson: Stone Mason and Freedom Seeker
Utica College Center for Historical Research
November 11, 2021