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Thomas P. Johnson was brought to Arkansas as a slave about 1859 from North Carolina or Kentucky, when he was about 38 years of age. He served in the Union Army during the Civil War, possibly with the 54th United States Colored Infantry out of Pulaski County, Arkansas. After the war, Johnson was elected one of eight Black members of the 1868 Arkansas Constitutional Convention, representing Little Rock (Pulaski County), Arkansas, where he was a minister. He was active at the Convention, speaking seven times and serving on two of its committees. In proceedings involving continuation of the Freedman’s Bureau, Johnson said “I do not think I ever would vote for the Freedmen’s Bureau to be done away with, until the country is reconstructed. We need reconstruction – universal suffrage. Give us that, and we don’t ask for more – give us that, and we will not need the Freedman’s Bureau.”
Johnson is said to have received legal training from his owner prior to emancipation that was sufficient to pass the bar examination. He was admitted to practice by the Arkansas Supreme Court on July 25, 1870, but may have been admitted earlier, in 1866, in Pulaski County (Little Rock). The 1870 census records report that he owned $2,000 in real estate and $500 in personal property, making him fairly well-to-do. His occupation is listed as Justice of the Peace.
Johnson served as a Justice of the Peace in Little Rock for twelve years, and then alternated between practicing law and serving as minister (Baptist and Methodist congregations) for the rest of his life. He was President of the Wonder State Bar Association, a legal organization of Black Lawyers, in 1901. Johnson did represent clients in court. On one occasion, he was cited for contempt of court and sentenced to jail for three days. He was released the same day by order of another judge who found an error in the contempt citation. There is no indication what Johnson had done to anger the first judge.
In 1870, the census reported that Johnson was married to Charlotte and they had three children (Willie, Carrie, and Elias). He died in Little Rock, Arkansas, on December 6, 1905.
Sources: Judith Kilpatrick, “(EXTRA)Ordinary Men: African-American Lawyers and Civil Rights in Arkansas Before 1950,” 53 Ark. Law Rev. 299, 299 n2, 302 n7, 308, 311 n71, 312 n76, 315, 316, 318, 319 n126, 333, 336, 339 n291, 345 (2000); The Colored Lawyers, Arkansas Gazette, 7/31/1901; Eric Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers 119 (2993); 1871-1877, 1890, 1895-96 Little Rock City Directories; Joseph M. St. Hilaire, “The Negro Delegates in the Arkansas Constitutional Convention of 1868, a group profile” 6, 8-9 (Washington State University 1970); D.B. Gaines, Racial Possibilities as Indicated by the Negroes of Arkansas 87 (1898); “Soldiers of the U.S. Colored Infantry in Pulaski County, 1864-1866, An Index,” 26 Pulaski County Hist. Rev. 79 (Dec 1978); T.P. Johnson J. P., “Chinese Immigration,” 10/5/1869, Arkansas Freeman; 12/27/1871, Arkansas Gazette , p. 2, col. 2;
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