Yesterday we introduced the man who may have been Albany’s foremost citizen of the abolitionist era, Dr. William Henry Johnson, “an aggressive and intrepid advocate of the rights of his race and the maintenance of the supremacy of our glorious United States. The “Doctor” before his name was purely an honorific, though one that may have been associated with a patent medicine that he sold, “Dr. Johnson’s Blood Purifying Compound Infusion Golden Seal.” He was widely regarded as “The Sage of Maiden Lane,” where his barbershop stood for many years. His autobiography consists of correspondence and remembrances from his many adventures in the abolitionist movement, the Civil War, and post-war politics, with some advice for the young of his race thrown in. Unfortunately, there’s very little in there on his life in Albany; were it not for the caption of this picture, we wouldn’t know he lived at 319 Orange Street for 28 years.
We do know that while in Albany, even though recognized as one of its leading citizens by some, he encountered issues of race. In 1870 he, his wife and child were ejected from the Trimble Opera House, even after he had been allowed to buy tickets.
“The facts are simply these: I desired to attend the opera house; I did not know whether persons of color were or were not admitted. I had heard that they were, and I also heard that they were not, admitted; yet, I did not at any time believe that they would be refused admission; neither did I believe that an orderly, respectable colored citizen, with his family, would be denied admittance to any proper public place.”
And yet he was denied entrance to the section (the “dress circle”) for which he had tickets. He sued the Trimble and brought a settlement under which he would be admitted free to the opera house, and the Evening Journal reported that “Since then all theatres have been doing business upon the equal rights plan … Dr. Johnson’s $5 were received by the then managers as being as white as anybody’s and, when he wants to enjoy a performance there, he will come pretty near doing so, or will learn, in a proper and legal manner, the reason why.”
He also advocated for the rights of others, noting in 1894 that “If women were allowed to vote, little time would be lost from the performance of their domestic duties, and there would be thrown around the voting places a halo of woman’s beautiful moral, religious and elevating influence. I hope that the wise men constituting the Constitutional Convention will do themselves justice by securing and awarding equal rights to their sisters.“