“His Whole Life Vindicated”

By H. Scott Wolfe

Wander through Galena’s New City Cemetery–now known as Greenwood–and you can’t help seeing the inscriptions. John and Mernervery Hall: “Born and Raised in Slavery.” John Barton:”Deprived of the rights of a citizen by odious and unjust laws, yet his whole life vindicated.” Henry Christopher: “Company D, 13th Colored Heavy Artillery.” And on rapidly weathering tombstones, long forgotten citizens with surnames of Brooks, or Stamps, or Reyno, or Lester. These were people who helped create the Galena of history. People who worked the mines, thronged the bustling steamboat levee, staffed the local hotels, and served the wealthy merchants whose mansions still cling to “Quality Hill”.

As Galena prospered, the African-American population flourished, their residences dotting both sides of the river. But with the end of the steamboat trade, the coming of the railroads, and the reversion of Galena to a mere provincial county seat, most black families sought greener economic pastures. Whether those who moved on, or those who remained to be layed to rest in Greenwood, their stories need to be told–and their deeds deserve a fitting remembrance.

To that end, a new organization was recently created, The Galena African-American Heritage Foundation, with the stated objective “to promote the research, interpretation, preservation and dissemination of Galena and Jo Daviess County’s African-American cultural heritage.”

Garret Johnson was a resident of Galena during the Civil War era. As were most Galena blacks, Johnson was relegated to a “menial” occupation, that of steamboat porter. During Reconstruction, he sought something better. In 1870 he journeyed to Mississippi, where he began “preaching to the colored people… and teaching their youths.” Later, in 1874, Johnson edited a newspaper in Jackson, The Field Hand, and founded a “Laboring Man’s Association”, of which he served as President.

Johnson had been invited to Mississippi by another former Galenian, James Lynch. Once the pastor of the Galena African Methodist Episcopal Church, he had been elected Secretary of State for the Commonwealth of Mississippi, and worked tirelessly to “secure fideltiy to the Union and political equality to the colored race.”