Dr. Robert Maxwell Johnson was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1826. Dr. Maxwell’s parents are not identified in documents or interviews given by Dr. Johnson. However he lectured extensively about his life and he disclosed that he was the youngest of 7 children. His mother was brought to the United States from Africa as a child, aboard a slave ship and sold to the Christian Family of Virginia. Rev. James Fishback married Dorothea Danbridge Christian in 1802 and Dr. Johnson’s mother went to live and work at the Fishback residence in Lexington, Kentucky where Dr. Johnson was born. Rev. Fishback was a Baptist Minister and over the course of his life he also practiced medicine and law. Dr. Johnson worked for Mrs. Fishback who secretly provided an education to Dr. Johnson and siblings. Her husband stood firmly against the education of slaves.
Mrs. Fishback died on the 17th of September 1840. Dr. Johnson’s mother counselled her son to flee after the death of Mrs. Fishback. In the spring of 1841, Rev. Fishback separated Dr. Johnson’s family and sold 5 of Dr. Johnson’s siblings to different slave owners. Heartbroken, Dr. Johnson’s mother died a short time later.
After the death of his mother, Dr. Johnson escaped and using contacts in the Underground Railway he obtained passage on a steamer to Cincinnati, Ohio. Not feeling comfortable or safe in Cincinnati, Dr. Johnson moved further north.
According to the 1850 census, Dr. Johnson lived with the Nelson Patterson family in Union, Indiana and his occupation was listed as a preacher.
Rev. Fishback died on the 26th of June, 1845 and his will provided for his slaves to be freed if they returned to Africa and never return to the United States. A sum of $50.00 would also be provided, but their freedom hinged on leaving the United States.
By 1854, Dr. Johnson lived in Toronto, where he continued to be a preacher and an anti-slavery activist.
In 1857 Dr. Johnson was enrolled at the University of Edinburgh and for the next 4 years he studied at the university. He was a sought after guest lecturer on the topic of slavery and he used the fee’s he obtained to support his education. It is unclear when the course of his studies included medical school but he graduated M.D. from the University of Edinburgh in 1863. He also obtained the designation of M.R.C.S.
Dr. Johnson married Mary Atkinson on the 27th of May, 1863 in Sheffield, England. Mrs. Johnson was born around 1830 in Sheffield, England. She was the 6th of 12 children born to William Atkinson and the former Elizabeth Pritchard. Her father was an accountant and her siblings were; John Atkinson, Charles Atkinson, William Atkinson, Sarah Atkinson, Richard Henry Atkinson, Alfred Atkinson (drowned at the age of 18), Elizabeth Atkinson, Eustace Carey Atkinson, Harriett Atkinson, Emily Atkinson and Maria Atkinson.
Dr. and Mrs. Johnson had a son named Robert William Stephenson Johnson who was born on the 4th of May, 1864. Daughters, Olive H. Johnson was born in 1866 and Sarah Agnes Johnson was born in July of 1868. They were all born in Sheffield, England. According to the 1870 U.K. & Ireland Medical Directory, Dr. Johnson’s medical practice was located at Oak Cottage, Nether Edge in Sheffield. In 1871, the family immigrated to Ontario, Canada. Another daughter Mary Caroline Constantine Johnson was born in Ontario and according to the 1871 census, the family was living in the Town of Chatham. Dr. Johnson’s occupation was listed as Physician/Surgeon.
Dr. Johnson died in Chatham on the 13th of May, 1871.
According to the 1876 Chatham Business Directory, Mrs. Johnson was living at 28 Prince Street and she was a widow.
Mrs. Johnson married John Lennox Brown on the 5th of November, 1885 in Chatham. Mr. Brown had been born in the United States in 1817 and he was a widower. His occupation was listed as a gardener on their marriage record.
Dr. Johnson’s daughter Olive Johnson was married in Chatham in 1881, his son Robert Johnson was married in Chatham in 1887, his daughter Mary Johnson was married in Chatham in 1891 and his daughter Sarah Johnson was also married in Chatham in 1893.
Mrs. Johnson died on the 14th of February, 1918 in Oberlin, Ohio. Towards the end of 1917, Mrs. Johnson-Brown had moved to Oberlin to live with her daughter Sarah and Sarah’s husband Arthur Richardson. Mrs. Johnson-Brown was buried at Maple Leaf Cemetery in Chatham.
*Dr. Robert Maxwell Johnson appears on the “Notable Kentucky African Americans” website.