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John H. Johnson was born in Ohio in 1840, and arrived in Augusta (Woodruff County), Arkansas, in 1865 at age 25. He is the earliest known Black attorney in Arkansas after the Civil War, said to have been admitted to practice and to the bar of the state supreme court the year he arrived.
Johnson was described as a “prominent planter and leader” in 1871, and there is no indication that he actively practiced law at any time. He was primarily a landowner and politician. Johnson was elected to the state legislature in 1873 from Crittenden, St. Francis, and Woodruff counties. Johnson was active in the Republican Party, presiding several times over the Republican State Convention and serving as a delegate to the 1872 and 1883 Republican National Conventions. He ran unsuccessfully for the United States Congress in 1884. About 1885, he was appointed to the post of Commissioner of Internal Revenue for the First District of Arkansas.
Johnson apparently had political connections before he arrived in Arkansas. His life reportedly was saved by Postmaster General William Dennison (former governor of Ohio) in Washington, D.C., where Johnson was arrested and sentenced to death as a spy after escaping from forced service in the Confederate Army. Johnson then returned to Cincinnati and served in the Union Army until the end of the war. A member of the Olive Branch Lodge Number 31, Evansville, Indiana, Prince Hall Masons, Johnson was one of the founders of the Arkansas Lodge and served as its second Grand Master, Grand Lodge of the State of Arkansas, in 1873-78. He was married to Kate Spottswood of Cincinnati, with whom he had two children. He died on July 12, 1885.
Sources: Judith Kilpatrick, “(EXTRA)Ordinary Men: African-American Lawyers and Civil Rights in Arkansas Before 1950,” 53 Ark. Law Rev. 299,302 n7, 304,312 n76, 313-14, 320, 325, 330, 345 (2000); Blake J. Wintory, African-American Legislators in the Arkansas General Assembly, 1868-1893, LXV Ark. Hist. Q. 385 (Wint 2006); Paige E. Mulhollan, Arkansas General Assembly of 1866 and Its Effect on Reconstruction, 20 Ark. Hist. Q. 331 (1961); 112th Communication, 112 Years of Freemasonry 1872-1984, M.W. Prince Hall Grand Lodge, Jurisdiction of Arkansas, 8/5-8/1984 (program); Llewellyn W. Williamson, Black Footprints around Arkansas 62-63 (1979); “A Noted Colored Man Dead,” (Obituary), 7/14/1885, Arkansas Gazette, p. 4, col. 3; “Political Points,” 9/25/1884, Russellville Democrat, p. 2;
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