In 1842, Andrew Johnson was a TN State Senator. During this year he bought his first slave.
A Bill of Sale reveals that on November 29th, Andrew Johnson paid $541.00 for Sam, a youth "about thirteen years of age." On January 3, 1843, Johnson paid $500.00 to purchase Sam's half-sister, Dolly. She was "about nineteen."
Fourteen years later, on May 6, 1857, Johnson paid $1015.00 for Henry, another youth "about thirteen years of age."
With chilling insensitivity, all were warranted to be "sound, healthy, sensible, and a slave for life."
In time, Sam would marry a woman named Margaret, and they had nine children, three born into slavery. Dolly had three children, all born into slavery with questionable parentage.
Who were these people slated to live in involuntary servitude for the entirety of their existence? What became of them and their families following emancipation?
Sam and Margaret
From early Andrew Johnson journal and ledger entries during the 1840s and into 1850, we know that Sam was hired out to several people around town for odd jobs, thus earning Andrew Johnson extra income or goods and services. Among other tasks, Sam assisted with plastering a house, pulling corn, cutting oats with scythe and cradle, and doing janitorial work by "attending the Court House."
Sometime in the mid-1850s, Sam married a woman named Margaret. Their first child, a daughter named Dora, was born in 1858. Robert and Hattie would follow, in 1860 and 1862. All three were born into slavery.
A January 1860 letter from Andrew Johnson's son, Charles, paints a vivid portrait of Sam: "...a few days since Mother sent him [Sam] word to cut wood at Pattersons, - he came up in the house and said, he would 'be damed' if he wanted to cut wood there; and if you wanted to sell him you could do so just as soon as he pleased, he did not care a dam,' You will see he is quite an independent gentleman and just to show his notions of himself and his rights, at another time he was asking Mother for his part of some money paid him for work[.] Mother remarked to him if he was as ready to pay others as he was to collect, he would do better; he replied that he did not get half enough no how; - that he ought to have all that he could make &c..." The letter reveals that Sam was later reimbursed in part for his work, and at this point he was able to keep these wages. It shows that Mrs. Johnson took care of some of the finances while her husband was absent.
According to family lore, Andrew Johnson freed all his personal slaves on August 8, 1863. They all remained with him afterwards as paid servants.
When Andrew Johnson became president in 1865, journalists became interested in his history and hometown. A reporter from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper visited Greeneville and wrote that Sam was living in Johnson's old Tailor Shop.
In March, 1867, Sam sent a letter to President Andrew Johnson. It read:
"I have been appointed one of the Commissioner of the Freedmens Bureau, to raise money with which to purchase a suitable Lot on which to build a School House for the education of the Coloured children of Greeneville - and my object in troubling you upon, the subject is to ascertain if there would be any chance for me to purchase an acre Lot off of one of your Tracts that lies out West of Town close to the Reble Graveyard. If you will let us have the Lot and will send me word as to the price of it I will send you the money, and would like for you to send me a deed to it. I am getting along as well as usual and have not changed any in Politics still being for you as much as ever. I would like to see you all very much" (Papers of Andrew Johnson, v. 12, pg. 183).
Johnson's response to Sam's request was to have a representative "select the lot wanted have it surveyed, plat made, and a deed drawn up...and send the instrument to me. I will convey the land to them without charge..." (Papers of Andrew Johnson, v. 12, pg. 237).
By 1869, as interest in Greeneville was renewed in advance of Johnson's return home, a Cincinnati Commercial correspondant knocked at the Tailor Shop door and Sam's wife Margaret invited him inside. "He lets me and my husband live in here now, and don't charge us any rent," she said.
In 1871, Sam Johnson seems to have instigated an early August 8th celebration in remembrance and recognition of their day of freedom. Both Sam and Andrew Johnson were in attendance. Sam was the officer of the day, and Andrew Johnson addressed the group. Sam's legacy continues, as August 8th is celebrated to this day in Tennessee and surrounding states as "Emancipation Day."
In his later life, as seen in his photograph, "we are told that Sam's aristrocratic feelings were revealed when, as janitor of a local church, he regularly wore a silk hat and long-tailed coat" (Papers of Andrew Johnson, v.3, pg. 405).
According to E.C. Reeves, private secretary to Andrew Johnson from 1869-1875, "On the day of...[Andrew Johnson's] burial the people came from the hills and the valleys; from everywhere near and far, until Greenville was filled as never before, and the cortege was so dense the marshals were unable to control the human masses and make a passage for the hearse which was carrying the coffined body to its sepulchral home on the way to the apex of the knoll which was to be the final sleeping place of the deceased, pointed out by negro Sam, a former slave, as having been so designated by his master..." (Stryker, Andrew Johnson: A Study in Courage, Appendix, pg. 836).
An August 2, 1947 article in the New Jersey Record tells of an auto trip of Mr. and Mrs. Fred R. Clark to Tennessee. "Mrs. Clark," the article stated, "is the daughter of the late Sam Johnson, ex-slave of President Johnson...She was the baby of several children; a brother and 8 sisters who have passed. Her father Mr. Samuel Johnson was a musician of note. He played a violin he made himself that could be heard for a mile around...The ground on which the...house stands was given to Mrs. Clark's father by President Johnson's son, and was built by Mr. Samuel Johnson."
A photograph of Dolly shows a woman with a gentle face, almost smiling as she holds Andrew Johnson's grandson on her lap. Andrew Johnson's granddaughter, Sarah Stover, wrote in her diary, "...my mind wanders back to the days when we children used to have a black mama as well as our own dear mama, but thank God the race is free. I think slavery is a sin..."
Dolly's daughters Liz and Florence were born in 1846 and 1848; her son William was born ten years later. In between, there was said to have been a child that died. While no evidence of Liz and Florence's father has been found, Will's death certificate lists Johnson's son, Robert, as the father.
In 1854 Andrew Johnson wrote to Robert. At the conclusion of the letter he wrote, "I have bought a basket and some other little notions for your little brothe[r] and a little chair for Liz and Florence &c - " At this time Liz and Florence were aged six and eight. Andrew Johnson Jr. was two years old.
William Johnson, Dolly's son, later recalled of Andrew Johnson. "When I was little, Mr. Andrew used to hold me on one knee and my sister on the other..." He also remembered that, "one day Mrs. Johnson called us all in and said we were free now. She said we were free to go, or we could stay if we wanted. We all stayed" (Nichols, Ernie's America, pg. 304).
This likely happened August 8, 1863, the date that has been passed down as the date Johnson freed his personal slaves. Andrew, Eliza, several of their children, and several of the slaves were all living in Nashville, TN, while Johnson served as Military Governor. Johnson later stated in a speech that, during the war, his slaves had been confiscated, stolen, and escaped, and that they had all returned to him. Johnson's son-in-law, Judge Patterson, had overseen part of their passage to Nashville.
In 1869, the same Cincinnati Commercial correspondant that had talked to Margaret spoke with Dolly. At that point Dolly was living in the house behind the Tailor Shop; the house that had once belonged to Eliza and her mother.
"It is a small house, with two rooms and one fireplace, and whitewashed like the shop. It stands on the street, there being no front yard."
By 1881, Sam had built his own home on land given to him by Andrew Johnson, Jr., and Dolly moved into the Tailor Shop and converted it into a business. A notice in the Greeneville Herald on March 17, 1881 stated, "Dolly Johnson, colored, has established a bakery in town."
Dolly likely passed away sometime between 1890 and 1892.
Henry Johnson accompanied the Johnson family to the White House. His obituary in the "Knoxville Miscellany" states:
"Henry Johnson, a well known colored man, died this morning (December 5,1890) at his home (in Knoxville) on Mabry Street. He was in the service of President Andrew Johnson at the White House and for several years past was in the employ of the post office."
Last updated: March 24, 2022
Andrew Johnson National Historic Site
121 Monument Ave.