Isaac Johnson, former slave, Union soldier, postwar stonemason in NY and Ontario

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Mar 1, 2019
The remarkable story of Isaac Johnson was the subject of a brief photo essay in the Ottawa Citizen the other day.

Isaac Johnson was born in 1844 in Kentucky to a white father and black mother from Madagascar; they farmed together and became reasonably prosperous, raising four children. In 1851, Isaac's father suddenly abandoned both farm and family – selling his wife and children into slavery. Isaac was enslaved until he managed to escape into Union lines during the war; he enlisted in the 102nd U.S. Colored Regiment and fought in South Carolina until surrender. After attempting unsuccessfully to locate and reunite with his family, he went north to work the ships on the Great Lakes. Eventually he settled in Winchester, Ontario, where he became a successful stonemason and builder, overseeing construction of several beautiful churches in towns along both sides of the St. Lawrence river. He wrote a brief account of his early life, Slavery Days in Old Kentucky, in 1897, which has been recently republished by UNC Press.

I had never heard of Isaac until this week, but his story has special meaning for me. I was married in one of Isaac's churches -- St. James Anglican in Morrisburg, Ontario -- one of the loveliest worship spaces in all of eastern Ontario.

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