Francis Johnson Exhibit


Johnson as an African American

When he left Philadelphia and ventured west on a tour of the Midwest, Johnson and his African-American band members did not always receive a warm welcome. Local bands were often resentful of the visiting musicians, who took business away from them. The racism toward Johnson and his band was open and often hostile.

"Riot Near Pittsburgh." New York Tribune, 17 May 1843.

Report of an incident of racism in Allegheny City (now the north side of Pittsburgh), 16 May 1843.
"Recognition March of the Independence of Hayti." Philadelphia: G. Willig, [1826?].

Haiti was founded following a slave revolt in 1791, which overthrew the government of the French colony St. Domingue. During the early nineteenth century, the French attempted to take back the country, but in 1825, the French government officially recognized Haiti's independence. This country of self-governing people of African descent became an inspiration to African Americans.
Portrait of Jean Pierre Boyer (1776?-1850). Reproduction of an engraving by Louis-Francois Charon (1783-1831) from a painting by Pierre Martinet (1781-ca. 1845).

Boyer was president of Haiti from 1818 to 1843. Isacc Mickel, in his diary entry, notes that a portrait of Boyer was hanging on the wall of Johnson's study.
Incident in Boston

"The following incident took place on the arrival at Boston [of the State Fencibles in June 1832]. The band they took with them consisted of 25 pieces and had been selected by Frank Johnson, the leader of the band connected with the Corps. All were colored men and were equipped with green uniforms trimmed with gold.

"On the arrival in Boston the Fencibles were waited on by a committee from their escort, who stated that if the colored band was allowed in the line the white bands would refuse to parade. Captain Page, not desiring to interfere with the arrangements, wisely ordered the band to march to their quarters, and await the arrival of the Corps. After the escort reached the hotel and was dismissed, an immense crowd assembled. It was then that Captain Page gave 'Johnson' his cue. Johnson being a perfect master of his instrument, his band all experts, and at the time having a remarkable reputation for their performances, still burning under the slight they had received, only waited for the chance to be revenged and now it came. Johnson filed his band on the porch in front of the hotel and, in the words of Captain Page, 'Frank never got so much out of his bugle before.' They spent three hours on that porch, and before they were through had entirely captivated the 'Yankees,' and were the victors." (Thomas S. Lanard, One Hundred Years with the State Fencibles. Philadelphia, 1913.)

Death of Johnson

William R. Bayley, a bandleader active in Philadelphia during Johnson's lifetime, offered a portrait of Johnson late in his life in an 1893 reminiscence published in the Philadelphia Evening Star.

"The Philadelphia State Fencibles, prior to my contract with them on June 27, 1843, had on a number of occasions employed Frank Johnson's colored band. Race feeling was then pronounced and bitter, and although Johnson had a band which few could equal, he often suffered from this foolish and ill-natured prejudice.

"Johnson was a good natured, gentlemanly fellow. Many of my musical confreres, alas! now dead and gone, have partaken of his hospitality. He would give dinners to his numerous musical friends, but always made a mark of distinction by not taking a seat at his own table. My band was a favorite of Johnson's. On one occasion we gave a band concert at the Chinese Museum Hall, which stood at Ninth and Chestnut, on the present site of the Continental Hotel.... We sold more than one thousand tickets, and each member of the band was taxed an additional sum to meet the expenses. While the band was playing, 'Old Frank,' as he was familiarly called, came in. He had been playing somewhere and had his bugle under his arm. I saw him, and, although he was not feeling well, urged him to play a solo. He favored us with The Last Rose of Summer. Poor fellow, it was the last time he ever played. His illness became serious, and he died a few days afterwards." (Quoted in William Carter White, A History of Military Music in America. New York, 1944).
"Boone Infantry Brass Band Quick Step." Illustration by William Huddy. Philadelphia: Osbourn's Music Saloon, c1844.
William Huddy. "Boone Light Infantry, St. Louis." Lithograph.

In December 1842, Johnson and his band visited St. Louis. As was his custom, he composed a march in honor of the milita group and its leader, Captain T.O. Duncan. While there, however, Johnson and the band were arrested, fined, and ordered to leave the state for being free blacks without a license. Two years later, as the "St. Louis Boone Light Infantry Quick-Step" was being readied for publication, Johnson died. William Huddy, who had drafted an image for the cover that featured a likeness of Duncan and one of his corpsman, replaced the corpsman with a likeness of Johnson, holding his trademark bugle, and this image was engraved for the cover of the sheet music.
"Frank Johnson's Funeral." Public Ledger, Philadelphia, 10 April 1844.

Johnson died on 6 April 1844 and was buried in the cemetery of St. Thomas African Episcopal Church at the corner of 5th and Walnut Streets. The church was later demolished, and it is not known what became of Johnson's grave.
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