Johnson paints ‘broad and colorful’ characters in historic portrayals
W.T. Johnson of Palmyra will portray 1800s house servant Peter Paul Johnson of Ralls County during the Nov. 14 annual fall meeting of the Louisiana Area Historical Museum.
William Thomas Johnson is a weaver.
For more than 30 years, he’s being sewing together patches of the past that capture the vibrant stories of historical figures he brings to life.
The tales spark renewed interest in significant contributors to American culture who, for the Internet generation. are little more than names in dusty books.
All of that stitching has led Johnson to his latest portrayal, a special treat which he’ll perform during the Louisiana Area Historical Museum’s annual fall banquet.
The event is at 6 p.m. Nov. 14 at Seton Center, 510 N. Third. Tickets are $20, and are available from museum board members, the Louisiana Public Library or by calling 573-754-4443 or 573-754-6495.
“I feel an obligation to share with others a little bit of history,” Johnson said. “I like to make it come alive for children and adults, too.”
For the Louisiana banquet, Johnson will step into the shoes of a well-traveled 1800s Ralls County house servant named Peter Paul Johnson, who has secret ties to the Underground Railroad.
The shadowy network of safe homes along hundreds of miles of routes from the East Coast to Missouri helped thousands of slaves escape to freedom during the 19th century.
A prominent feature of the portrayal will be a controversial quilt.
According to some descendants of slaves, quilt patterns were used as directional and informational tools on the Underground Railroad. They say pictured patterns would have aided the often illiterate escapees.
Historians and some quilters, however, say the tales are myths. They point out that the first claims of “freedom quilts” or the “slave quilt code” didn’t appear until the latter part of the 20th century.
Johnson doesn’t take sides.
But he says he sees “some elements of truth” in the accounts because abolitionists, slaves and their helpers “certainly didn’t go around and advertise” or document their activities.
Johnson got the quilt abot four years ago from a childhood friend, Cheryl Hinds Gibson, who now lives in Colorado. She wanted him to share it with others.
One of the patches features a wagon wheel, which Johnson says would have told escaping slaves to be prepared to move on.
“There are quilters who are very familiar with the patterns,” he said.
Tapestries in time
The house servant Peter Paul Johnson is just one of at least 12 characters whose souls Johnson has reinvigorated, however briefly.
Not all of them have had and X and a Y chromosome, either.
Johnson has portrayed two women, including Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist and former slave who made it her mission to bring others to freedom.
Johnson has given programs on famous people, such as George Washington Carver, the Missouri-born scientist most remembered for his study of peanuts. While many know Carver’s story, they may not have known that he stuttered, something Johnson brought out in his re-enactment.
In addition, Johnson has showcased ordinary Americans, such as Cathay Williams, another Missouri native who passed herself off as a man and served with the Union in the Civil War as William Cathay.
Williams was present in Arkansas at the Battle of Pea Ridge, where troops under Union commander and former Iowa congressman Samuel Ryan Curtis won. Keokuk, where Curtis served as mayor and is buried, still remembers the battle every April with a three-day re-enactment. Williams’ ruse wasn’t discovered until after the war.
And then there are local and area legends to which Johnson has given new attention. One of the more prestigious is Father John Augustine Tolton, who was born a slave on April 1, 1854, in Monroe County, and went on to become the first black Catholic priest in America.
In March 2010, Tolton was introduced for canonization in the Catholic Church. Last year, the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints named Tolton a “servant of God,” which is another step toward sainthood.
“I find a great deal of satisfaction in doing it,” Johnson said. “It’s certainly entertaining, but it certainly provides audiences with information about (historic people’s) lives.”
Johnson loves answering audience questions, and he’s quick to point to the attention shown by crowds as a key to his portrayals.
“They’ve contributed to my success,” he said.
Almost no one calls Johnson by his given name.
He’s known as W.T., and he’s been opening minds and challenging people to learn for more than four decades.
The Palmyra native, who will observe his 65th birthday in January, spent kindergarten through second grade at the segregated Lincoln School in Marion County.
Since graduating from Culver-Stockton College in Canton in 1973, he has been an educator in many settings. For the past 12 years, it’s been at Veterans Elementary in Hannibal, where he’s the assistant principal and counselor.
But the Army veteran first heard the whispers that guided him toward historical portrayals in the early 1980s during a stint as a civilian instructor at the American military base in Guantanomo Bay, Cuba. The base would sponsor social events in which guests were encouraged to dress as a favorite person.
By the time he moved back to Missouri a few years later, Johnson found himself researching and portraying renowned statesman Frederick Douglass.
From there, things took off, and those silent inspirations have continued to push him forward.
But no matter to whom he gives a voice, Johnson follows what he calls the same “old school” approach.
It all begins with extensive research from a variety of sources. For many African-American portrayals, that includes oral traditions that have been handed down in families for generations.
One of his first characterizations was Dred Scott, the Missouri slave who sparked an 1857 Supreme Court decision in which the justices ruled that blacks were not American citizens.
The presentations can sometimes be hard for people in today’s politically-correct world to fathom, but Johnson is adamant that the good and the bad get equal treatment.
“You have to draw upon what those times were like,” he said.
After the research is complete, Johnson writes out his script on index cards, which he commits to memory. He also puts together period costumes.
Sometimes, Johnson will fictionalize a statement or dramatize a scene. However, such practices are custom among historians, especially authors who base their descriptions in dialogue upon documented works or autobiographical sketches without using exact quotes.
For Johnson, the spoken word is an even greater highway for communication. He learned early on that inflection could have an immediate impact, transporting the audience to a time and place they probably had never thought about before.
“I want to give people a greater appreciation of history,” Johnson said. “The things (characters) accomplished were great things.”
One more thing
Johnson says history is as “broad and colorful” as the quilt he will feature at his Louisiana appearance.
But he’s already set his sights on another figure he’s been itching to bring out from the mists.
It’s a fictional literary character whom millions the world over know, but perhaps few understand.
And that’s all the opening Johnson needs to pierce the veil by creating a verbal and visual path to greater enlightenment.
The character Johnson has in mind is one of the most prominent and vital from Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.”
“Right now, that voice inside me is saying ‘Let’s do Jim,’” Johnson said.