African American Last Name Johnson

There were 669,333 black Americans with Johnson as their last name in the 2010 U.S. Census. This was 35% of the total number with that name in the country.

This article looks at:

  • 19th and early 20th-century black census numbers for the name
  • notable African American people named Johnson
  • early black military records and how to find them

Johnson Before The Civil War

The 1850 census was the first to record all free members of households together. Before this, people who were not white were not named in the federal census.

In 1850, there was a box to enter color on the census. It was left blank to denote white, b for black, or m for mulatto. The third term is the language of the time. I will use mixed in the rest of this article.

If you are researching your black Johnson ancestors in census archives, be sure to search under both categories. Do not rely on the census taker picking the correct category.

1850 Federal Census

There were 7,120 people named Johnson who were recorded as black in the 1850 census. 1,825 were recorded as mixed.

Because they are in the main federal census, these are free citizens.

There was a total of 114,639 free citizens named Johnson that year.

1860 Federal Census

The 1860 federal census recorded 7,451 people named Johnson as black, and 2,556 as mixed.

That is out of a total of 150,286 free citizens.

Of course, census-taking would change after the Civil War.

After The Civil War

1865 newly freed family in Richmond, Virginia

The 1870 census was the first after the Civil War. At last, all African Americans are included.

Those who were omitted in 1860 because they were enslaved are now in this census. Here are the numbers.

78,033 people named Johnson were recorded in the 1870 census as black and 10,955 as mixed.

The increase is clear. The overall total (all Americans) was 282,435.

The 1880 census recorded 111,434 as black and 17,767 as mixed out of a total of 382,785.

Now we jump to the end of the 19th century – or the beginning of the 20th.

Johnson In The 1900 And 1940 Census

In 1900, the mixed category was dropped. However, not all enumerators followed those instructions. I have found a small number of records where “m” was still used in the box for color.

I will focus here on the black numbers.

The 1900 census recorded 180,717 people named Johnson as black within a total of 637,079.

There were 254,858 people named Johnson recorded in the 1940 census as black within a total of 1,024,991.

Historic Black Figures

Here are some notable African Americans through history with the last name of Johnson.

William Henry Johnson

  • Born: 1833
  • Died: 1918
  • From: Alexandria, Virginia

William Henry Washington was born to free parents and became an abolitionist. He first got involved with the Underground Railway when he moved to Albany in 1851.

The Underground Railroad was a vast network of secret routes and safe houses organized by many abolitionists and rights activists. It helped thousands of enslaved people escape from the South.

He continued helping fugitives when he moved back to Philadelphia but had to flee himself in 1859. After he fought in the Civil War, he worked in New York politics to change discriminatory laws.

Another Johnson, by the name of Ann, was part of a group of eight who made a daring jailbreak when they were betrayed by someone pretending to help them.

You can read the tale in our excerpt on Ann Johnson from William Still’s book The Underground Rail Road.

James Weldon Johnson

Born: 1871
Died: 1938
From: Jacksonville, Florida

James Weldon Johnson’s mother was a musician and schoolteacher. Under her influence, he excelled at school and attended Atlanta University when he was just sixteen.

He and his brother Rosamond moved to New York in 1910 where they collaborated as songwriters. James was the lyricist while Rosamond wrote the music. Their best known work is the hymn “Lift Every Voice And Sing“.

James also wrote poetry and published anthologies of other poets. He was very influential in the Harlem Renaissance, particularly through his encouragement of other artists.

James discovered the unpublished poems of Anne Spencer when she invited him to speak at a NAACP meeting in Virginia. He organized publication of this fine poet who might otherwise be unknown.

Johnson was also a committed activist. He investigated lynchings on behalf of the NAACP and organized protests against racial violence. He spent ten years as Executive Secretary of the organization.

Charles Johnson

  • Born: 1893
  • Died: 1956
  • From: Bristol, Virginia

Charles S. Johnson was the son of a Baptist minister. He graduated from Virginia Union in 1916 with a degree in sociology. He earned his PhD after service in France in WWI.

Johnson published major studies on race relations and civil rights. He became the first black president of Fisk University in 1946.

Johnson In Black Military Records

You may be surprised at the amount of genealogy information available from military records.

Here are some examples of the Johnson surname from three different military services:

  • Buffalo soldiers
  • Black civil war soldiers
  • Tuskegee airmen

Buffalo Soldiers

Five regiments for black soldiers were formed during the Civil War. They were known as the Buffalo Soldiers.

Their records are part of the national archive of military monthly returns. The information includes the year and place of birth, where they enlisted, their occupation, and their height.

One of the earliest entries for Johnson was in 1866.

Richard Johnson was a Private in the Tenth Cavalry. He was stationed in 1866 at St Louis, Missouri.

One of the last entries was in 1915. Malcolm Johnson was a Corporal in the Ninth Cavalry that year.

If you want to do your own research, there is a free index of these military records on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org.

Black Civil War Sailors

The National Parks Service has a free archive of African American sailors during the Civil War.

The information includes their age, height, rank, occupation, and where and when they enlisted. It also includes every ship that they served on.

You can search the database on the National Parks website.

Alexander Johnson

One of the earliest entries for the surname concerned Alexander Johnson from Washington, District of Columbia. He enlisted in 1861 aged 28.

His occupation before enlisting was as a Waiter. His naval rank was Landsman.

“Landsman” was the lowest rank at the time and was given to recruits with little sea experience.

Adam Johnson

One of the later entries was for a sailor who enlisted in 1865. Adam was aged 32 and was from Morristown, New Jersey.

His occupation before enlisting was as a Fireman. His naval rank was 2nd Class Fireman.

Firemen in the Navy worked in the engine room and with other machinery

Tuskegee Airmen

The Tuskegee Airmen were military personnel who served at the Tuskegee Army Airfield or related programs.

Nearly one thousand black pilots graduated from the Tuskegee Institute. They flew single-engine fighter planes or twin-engine bombers. 352 fought in combat.

Carl Johnson graduated as a 2nd Lieutenant from the Tuskegee Institute in 1943. He qualified as a fighter pilot. Carl was from Charlottesville, Virginia.

His combat credits said: 

Downed 1 RE-2001 on July 30, 1944

Langdon Johnson came from Rand, West Virginia. He trained as a fighter pilot and graduated as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1943.

His combat credits said: 

Downed 1 Me-109 on July 20, 1944