Monday, December 10, 2018

Isaac Johnson: Former Slave, Master Mason

slavery days in old kentucky“The citizens of our patriotic town are erecting a fine town hall which is to cost from $10,000.… Mr. Isaac Johnson, a colored gentleman from West Winchester, Ont. is the contractor and one of the best architects in the country.”

This statement from the Gouverneur Free Press in July, 1884 references a construction project in Waddington under the supervision of an African American stone mason who recently moved his family from Canada to this small community in St. Lawrence County located between Ogdensburg and Massena. After having been born into enslavement in the South before the War Between the States, Johnson became a self-made, polished professional.

After escaping from slavery in Kentucky, Johnson served in the 102nd United States Colored Troops during the last two years of the War and was wounded three times. When he mustered out, he spent close to two years trying to find his family. This venture was unsuccessful, and he eventually was hired on a cargo ship on the St. Lawrence River. Soon he accepted a land-based job when he signed on the Baker limestone quarry in Winchester, starting as a laborer where for 8 years he acquired skills in the building arts. In fact, when the contractor in charge of erecting the United Church in Winchester suddenly died, his abilities prompted his promotion to project leader.

His successful oversight spurred his relocation across the border when he garnered 2 contracts in the North Country — for the Town Hall in Waddington which is now on the National Register For Historic Places, and for an arched bridge over the Grasse River at Chamberlain’s Corners, both of which are still in use. Concerning the former, the Watertown Daily Times reported recently on July 28 that while the interior of this building has been refurbished, the exterior “remains mainly untouched ….” as plans call for it to “become the hub for huge events” in the village in the future. While living in Waddington, Johnson’s future in the building arts took shape. A strong chronology of the next chapters in Johnson’s life can be found in Hope Irvin Marston’s children’s book, Isaac Johnson: From Slave To Stone Cutter (1995).

Not all of his projects were extensive. In 1887, Johnson acquired a job at a private residence in nearby Ogdensburg. On October 6, the Ogdensburg Advance pointed out that “Mrs. Senator Pierce is making extensive improvements on her house and grounds. Isaac Johnson is in charge of the stone work…” While Johnson worked primarily in St. Lawrence County, his talents were called upon in 1888 to erect a Catholic Church in Churubusco in Clinton County. But new opportunities prompted Johnson to relocate to Ogdensburg in 1890 where projects awaited.

In fact, there has been research on Johnson’s work at the new NYS Psychiatric Center in the Burg. While at St. Lawrence University’s Department of History, Dr. Cornel Reinhart, along with former Waddington Town Historian, Pauline Tedford, delved into the records. They concluded, according to the Syracuse Herald American on February 26, 1995, that Johnson “worked extensively on several buildings” at the new Center. Newly elected St. Lawrence County Legislator, James Reagen, wrote a series of articles on Johnson in The Ogdensburg Journal in 1995 as well.

Most people, though, are unaware of Johnson’s work contract in expanding the City Hospital and Orphanage. Ogdensburg’s The Daily Journal reported on May 2, 1894 on Johnson’s complicated construction at the crowded City Hospital and Orphanage in the former Ford Mansion on King Street. There would be new stone work, and ‘the entire interior will be finished with all the modern appliances for ventilating, heating and lighting….” The paper says that “there are now some twenty men, under Master Builder Isaac Johnson, employed in erecting additions for the enlargement of the…Hospital….The base of the building has been extended eighty-five feet on the easterly end, and thirty feet on the north and eighty–five feet on the south. The addition is of stone to correspond with the original structure and will be three stories high.” This hospital became part of the Hepburn Hospital in 1918 (now named the Clayton-Hep-burn Hospital.)

Johnson’s construction career came to an end in 1897 when he was injured upon falling from a derrick while cutting stone in Cornwall, Ontario. During his retirement, he wrote/published his memoir, Slavery Days in Old Kentucky, which sold for 25 cents a copy. This was a final part of his enduring public legacy.

The day after his death on December 4, 1905, Ogdensburg’s The Daily Journal could do no better than to declare that Johnson “was of the more intelligent and thrifty type of the African race. He was a first class mechanic….” While these words are racially charged and demeaning to a “Master Builder,” his funeral at St. Mary’s Cathedral a few days later was much more appropriate. The local G.A.R. post and the Stone Masons Union – both of which he was a member – attended the service along with many town and out-of-town people. Johnson’s burial was in the Soldiers’ Plot of the Ogdensburg cemetery with a proper military service. Johnson was a war veteran, an author, a skilled contractor, and a North Country resident who contributed to the growth and pride of the region.

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Richard White is an independent researcher with a focus on New York’s African American history. His articles have appeared in Civil War History, The Journal of Negro History, and other publications.

2 Responses

  1. James E. Reagen says:

    I just want to compliment Richard White on his well researched article on Isaac Johnson who later moved to Ogdensburg. Mr. Johnson was one of Ogdensburg’s unsung heroes after the Civil War who set an example for both whites and African Americans. Thanks for pointing out that he was buried in the Soldier’s Plot with the others heroes who served their nation.

    • richard white says:

      Thank you, Mr. Reagen. I look forward to reading your articles in the Journal
      whose issues are saved for me by by a resident of the Burg.

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