Thomas Lewis Johnson and his wife Sarah Artemico Johnson settled in eastern Bournemouth around 1894. Both were Americans and both had experienced slavery. Johnson with his first wife had gone to Africa as Baptist missionaries but she had soon died and he returned, ill, from Cameroon in 1880. He continued Christian work, publishing the African Mission Herald in Chicago in 1888 where he married Sarah Artemico McGowan in 1881. They travelled widely in Britain and eventually settled in Sydenham, southeast London by 1893, the year after their six year old daughter Ruth died. For health reasons the couple settled in Bournemouth where the seventh (and expanded) edition of his autobiography Twenty-Eight Years a Slave was published in 1909 (see www.archive.org/details/twentyeightyears for the full text). He sent a copy to his Member of Parliament, Arthur Acland Allen: Johnson, who had become a British citizen in 1900 due to the support of local people, had voted for him (see letter above).
Johnson’s interest in Africa is seen in that he named 66 Paisley Road “Liberia” after the black-led republic in West Africa. He spoke in local chapels and in the district, showing slave shackles and whips (a portrait photograph of Johnson holding them was sold as a postcard), and was seen in a wheelchair in the district in the 1910s. He died on 11 March 1921, aged 85, and was buried in plot Q2 95 in the town’s Boscombe cemetery (now Bournemouth East cemetery) in the nonconformist sector. The small headstone states “In loving memory of my dear husband Thomas L. Johnson, African Missionary” but does not say he was born in Virginia, and had lived almost three decades in slavery.
The Bournemouth Times and Directory 19 March 1921 reported that his wife had survived him. Her name has not been found in the local directories in the 1920s, and as her niece had attended Johnson’s funeral, it was thought she had returned to Chicago. The grave was dug nine ft deep, so there was room for her coffin in due course. The Calendar of Grants of Probate notes that she and Samuel Whitty Chandler (gentleman) had been given probate in June 1922, the estate being worth £1005 14s 0d.
Sarah Artemico Johnson died in Bournemouth in late 1928, aged ninety. The Johnsons were unlikely residents of Bournemouth and the absence of information on Sarah Johnson suggests further research would be useful.
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