Monkton man seeks to trace roots to country's first major black artist

October 02, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

Woodrow W. Johnson says that at age 73 he has led a full life, but he still has one goal: to solve the mystery of his possible descent from Joshua Johnson, the country's first important black portrait artist.

Family tradition, circumstantial evidence and "gut feeling" tell the Monkton resident he's right, but documentary proof remains elusive.

"It's a mystery," said Mr. Johnson, a retired racing stable fore- man.

Joshua Johnson worked in Baltimore from the mid-1790s until about 1825. He painted members of prominent families, including many children. His first known listing in the city directory was in 1796 and his last was in 1824.

"They don't know what he looked like, when he died or where he was buried," Woodrow Johnson said.

"I know my time is limited," he said, "but I'd like to have something to leave for my grandchildren."

"If I let it go maybe Courtney and Sandra would let it go," he said, referring to his children. "Maybe their kids would pick it up, but it could be another 50 or 60 years, so I want to do what I can now," he said.

The artist lived in various sections of the city, including Fells Point and an alley between Howard and Hanover streets. He also apparently worked frequently in his subjects' homes.

From his style, Johnson was believed to have learned his art from the famous Peale family of Baltimore portraitists. It is thought he may have been either a slave or an employee of the family but was a freeman by 1790.

According to the research published by the Maryland Historical Society for its 1987 exhibition of 83 Johnson portraits, Johnson and one of the Peales worked at portraits in the same house at the same time on several occasions.

Johnson first advertised his services as a portraitist in 1798 in the Baltimore Intelligencer. Obviously no shrinking violet, the artist described himself as a "self-taught genius."

Interest in Joshua Johnson was awakened in 1940 when Dr. J. Hall Pleasants published his 20 years of research on the artist's work and had a resurgence in the society's exhibition.

The first record of the Johnson family in northern Baltimore County was in 1846, according to the research by Carolyn J. Weekley published by the historical society.

In 1846, a Joshua Johnson, probably the artist's grandson, and his sons, Joshua and George, lived on a tract in My Lady's Manor. In 1847, one of the artist's sons, George, was listed in the Sparks-Monkton area.

The problem, Woodrow Johnson says, is that he hasn't found any records to confirm the link to his family. But he is convinced they exist -- somewhere.

"I was born and raised on Johnson's Delight," the 12-acre farm bought by the family in 1882 and still owned by Woodrow Johnson across from his Troyer Road home, he said. The farm was already named when his family bought it, and another field on Troyer Road has always been called "Johnson's Field," he said.

Mr. Johnson said he recently obtained a photocopy of an 1874 deed from a Joshua Johnson selling half an acre of that field to the trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church for $2. "I always knew that's where the land came from, now it's proved," Mr. Johnson said.

The site is still occupied by the tiny Union M.E. Chapel and the small cemetery behind it contains many Johnson graves.

"I know within myself that we are the heirs of Joshua Johnson and it stands to reason that it can be proven," he said. "Everything falls right into line, the children's names and the dates, everything."

One his uncles was named Joshua Howard Johnson, which continued the name for another generation.

Mr. Johnson said he is prepared to back up his quest with cash -- "as much as $10,000" -- if he can find a genealogist to unravel the puzzle.

Mr. Johnson said that he spoke with a New York genealogist about two years ago. The man told him he would come to Maryland to research the family tree but Mr. Johnson hasn't heard from him again and can't remember his name.

Mr. Johnson said he was disappointed by the historical society. "They just didn't finish the work," he said. "In that book, there's so much maybe and perhaps. I feel that if the right people got hold of it it could be done," he said.

Like Mr. Johnson, Ruth Mascari, vice chairman of the Baltimore County Historic Preservation Commission and an historian, is convinced of the family connection but so far has not been able to demonstrate it on the record.

But there is nothing to disprove it either, she said, "we're within one generation of it."

Mrs. Mascari said she believes that James Zachary Johnson, Woodrow's grandfather, was a direct descendant of the painter.

"I have Joshua Johnson missing from the city after 1824, and I have two sons showing up in Baltimore County but I cannot find Joshua's death or burial. I don't know if he was ever at Troyer Road," Mrs. Mascari said.

"There are no birth records for his sons," she said, but based on the circumstantial evidence "there is no reason to assume that they belonged to anyone else."

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