William H. Johnson. CDV. Album 2. Page 17.
After Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Dougalss, and John Brown, William H. Johnson is the best remembered of the public figures included in the Chapman albums. At the same time, he is probably the most important of public figures in the life of Arabella, her family, and her community. Why? Because Johnson spent much of his political career in Albany, New York.
Johnson was a peer to Arabella’s parents, born in Virginia in 1833, the same year as Harriet Chapman. By 1851, he was settled in Albany where he was an underground railroad activist along with Stephen Myers. (Myers’ daughter Lizzie, a friend to Arabella, is included in Album 2 here.) Johnson spent 1855 to 1864 in Philadelphia, active with that city’s Banneker Literary Society, and then on active duty during the Civil War.
Upon his 1864 return to Albany, Johnson took up the helm of the New York State Equal Rights Committee, serving as its chairman from 1866 to 1873. He was a crusader for African American civil rights, drafting legislation that opened the way for black voting rights and barred racial discrimination. [See, aaregistry.org.]
Historians of black Albany owe a debt to Johnson. His 1900 book, Autobiography of Dr. William Henry Johnson, Respectfully Dedicated to his Adopted Home the Capital City of the Empire State remains the best window into African American life and culture in Albany in Arabella’s era. The text includes a sketch of Johnson’s life, tributes to his stature and influence, a chronicle of the city’s black associational life.
The Chapman family was intimately tied to Johnson’s book. He notes their qualities: Harriet Chapman (Arabella’s mother) is credited with keeping a fine boarding-house; Charles Chapman (Arabella’s brother) is noted a secretary to the Colored Republican League; Arabella and her sister Alfarata are singled out as graduates of Albany’s high school.
It is the role that Arabella’s brother played, as compiler of Johnson’s text, that most strongly suggested how closely tied the Chapman family was to the politics of civil rights in Albany. John was manager of the Leonard Publishing Company. In his “Finale,” Chapman paid tribute to Johnson as a “heroic” figure who called upon Albany’s young men and women to embrace his call for the “elevation” of the race.