Some people step forward and make a difference. Jimmy Johnson was one of those people. His contribution to Platte County was heightening awareness of African-American history from the Civil War era. Johnson died Feb. 10 at age 66. He was a longtime educator at schools in other parts of the metro area. But he was also a historian and advocate for black history. His enthusiasm coupled with research wound up putting the county’s earliest African-American history in the news, in educational presentations and in an interesting documentary about slavery. Those red brick, antebellum houses scattered across the county, especially in the Weston area, are reminders of pre-Civil War prosperity. Fine homes of brick have endured. Log cabins or wood-frame shacks where the slaves dwelled have not. So it’s easy to forget that African-Americans contributed much to this county’s founding and history. Johnson, with a major assist from the late Gordon Miller of Platte City provided a poignant reminder. Platte County historian W.M. Paxton in his “Annals of Platte County” chronicled that during the Civil War years many slaves escaped to Kansas. Union troops at Leavenworth denied requests by this county’s farmers to forcibly return them as property. Johnson came at this topic from his family ties. His research determined that his great-grandfather, a former slave named George Washington, had escaped from a farm owned by Jesse Miller in an area now west of the Kansas City International Airport. Johnson conducted an archeological dig on the farm in 1996. But he also formed a friendship with Gordon Miller, a descendant of Jesse Miller. Both the friendship and the archeological study were chronicled in media. For a time, Platte County was front and center in a history often ignored. But it was the positives in the story that really stood out. Johnson pointed out contributions made by slaves. His friendship with Miller as they both looked back at their ancestors’ roles served as a symbol of progress. Johnson’s great-grandfather had also served in the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment. That unit fought at the Battle of Island Mound in Bates County in Missouri. It was the first combat engagement of African-American troops in the Civil War and the location is now a state historic site. Johnson transferred his classroom teaching skills to bringing that history to life. Some years ago, he appeared at the Martin Luther King Holiday observance held annually in Liberty. Front and center the Vietnam War veteran stood in Union Blue attire of his great-grandfather’s unit. He marched briskly about the stage and told the Civil War story with a positive presence that was entertaining and informative. The teacher knew how to move an audience, in large part because he was a passionate man. Scholars in recent years have dug deeper into Missouri’s slavery past to better understand the realities and how that past influences the present. Johnson and the Miller farm in Platte County served as a centerpiece for a documentary called “Negro for Hire” released in 2009 by Kansas Citian Gary Jenkins. Our state’s version of slavery usually involved smaller farms and slave numbers than the stereotypes of the Deep South plantations. But that reality made hardships no easier for those who were slaves. Their descendants remaining in the county after the Civil War undoubtedly coped with great difficulties as the economic order changed and prejudice remained. Platte County is now celebrating its 175th anniversary. Slavery and a county divided by a bloody Civil War are unsettling to look back upon. But Johnson helped show us how to face this past by seeking truth in the past and reconciliation in the present. Both help the future.
Bill Graham, who lives in the Platte City area with his family, may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.