From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

Johnson, Robert Maxwell

(born: 1826  -  died: May 13, 1871) 

Robert M. Johnson was an African American expatriate who had been enslaved for 24 years in Lexington, KY to Dorothea D. Christian and her husband the Rev. James Fishback. Johnson escaped and gained his freedom sometime after 1841, thereafter making his way to Canada, where he stayed for several years before leaving North America to become a medical student in Edinburgh, Scotland and a medical doctor in Sheffield, England.

Bits and pieces of information about Robert Maxwell Johnson's life are scattered across at least two continents and four countries. His name has been written as Robert Johnson, Rev. R. M. Johnson, and Dr. Robert Maxwell Johnson. There are still a lot of unknowns about his life.

Inquiries about Robert M. Johnson were first received with reference citations in December 2020 from Graham Hardy, Serials Librarian at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in Scotland. The references were a starting point for the research. In April 2021, additional information was received from Melissa Hawker, Learning Officer at the Norfolk Museums Service in Norfolk, England. Melissa Hawker was extremely generous in sharing her research to help develop this entry, which is meant to assist others in continuing research about the life and accomplishments of Kentuckian Robert Maxwell Johnson. 

Newspaper articles report that Robert M. Johnson said that his mother was a little girl when she was brought to the U.S. from Africa. She was purchased and enslaved by the Christian family and became the property of Dorothea Dandridge Christian (1785-1840), who taught Johnson's mother to read and write. Dorothea Christian was the first wife of Rev. James Fishback (1776-1845); both were from Virginia. [Dorothea D. Christian was also the niece of Patrick Henry.] The Fishbacks married in 1802 and settled in Lexington, KY along with their enslaved. Robert M. Johnson's mother served as housekeeper. In 1810, the Fishbacks had eight people enslaved in Lexington, and by 1820, just six, according to the U.S. Census records in Ancestry.

Robert Johnson said he was born in Lexington. His account of his family states that his mother was married and had a total of seven children, he being the youngest. The children did work around the house. As their mother gave birth to her children, they too became the property of the Fishbacks. The names of Robert M. Johnson's mother and father were not mentioned in the cited newspaper article. 

SOURCES: "On Tuesday evening last ...," The Hampshire Chronicle, South Hampton and Isle of Wright Courier, 1/6/1866, p. 5; and "Lecture on American slavery, by an escaped slave," Essex Standard, 2/1/1865, vol. 35, issue 1781. 

Rev. Fishback died June 26, 1845. In his last will and testament, he granted freedom to those enslaved to him but stipulated that freedom was only for those who agreed to emigrate to Liberia, Africa and never return to the United States. Once they left U.S. shores, each was to receive $50. The names of the enslaved persons were not written into the will. Robert M. Johnson was not among those who agreed to migrate to Liberia. It is not known if he escaped before or after the death of Rev. Fishback.

SOURCES: "Swaffham - On Wednesday evening last, the Rev. J. R. Johnson, an escaped slave...", Lynn Advertiser, 6/3/1865 [name should be Rev. R. M. Johnson]. See also "A will belonging to James Fishback providing instructions for the emancipation of his slaves and a letter (1848) to Mrs. Fishback from one of the liberated slaves." Accession No. 46M53. John Winston Coleman Jr. Collection on Slavery in Kentucky, Box 1, Folder 9. University of Kentucky, Special Collections Research Center. Link to collection finding aid.

Rev. James Fishback was well known in Lexington. In addition to being a Baptist and later Christian minister, he had practiced medicine and law and was an educator, author, writer, and member of the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1808. He corresponded with President Thomas Jefferson and was a member of the committee tasked with inspecting the Choctaw Academy in Scott County, KY. In 1805, Rev. Fishback was appoint chair of the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Transylvania College in Lexington. There was no medical school at Transylvania at the time, though Rev. Fishback taught private classes in his office. He resigned his professorship at Transylvania in 1806.

According to an 1866 British newspaper account of a lecture given by Robert M. Johnson, after the Fishbacks moved to Kentucky, Mrs. Fishback had continued to provide educational instruction to Johnson and his siblings during Bible studies. There was never a Kentucky law prohibiting the education of enslaved persons, though there was  prejudice and violence toward those receiving the education as well as those doing the teaching. Rev. Fishback was not in favor of educating enslaved persons. According to Robert M. Johnson, Rev. Fishback did not know that his wife was their teacher. 

SOURCES: A Brief Sketch of the History of Lexington, Kentucky and of Transylvania University, by Robert Peter, M.D., p. 11; Genealogy of the Fishback Family in America, by W. M. Kemper; and "On Tuesday evening last ...," The Hampshire Chronicle, South Hampton and Isle of Wright Courier, 1/6/1866, p. 5. See photographs of Rev. James Fishback's home in Lexington in ExploreUK at the University of Kentucky Special Collections Research Center.

It is uncertain if Robert Maxwell Johnson's name was the same before and after he gained his freedom. Various newspaper articles about his lectures in Scotland and England do not include the full text of the lectures wherein he talked about his early life, nor is there a Robert M. Johnson manuscript collection. His life story was told in the newspapers that summarized the content of his lectures, including an account of his escape at some point after the death of Dorothea Dandridge Christian Fishback on September 17, 1840.

It was then that Rev. Fishback began to inflict severe treatment on those enslaved to him. He had been a widower for about six months when in the spring of 1841 Rev. Fishback sold five of Johnson's siblings to different owners in the United States. The enslaved auction block was downtown, less than two blocks from Rev. Fishback's home. During the winter of 1841, about eight months after her five children were sold, Johnson's mother died. A few months prior to her death, Rev. Fishback had married the widow Susan Hart Shelby McKinney on June 8, 1841.

It was the third marriage for Susan H. S. McKinney, the daughter of former Kentucky Governor Isaac Shelby. She had buried two husbands. The new Mrs. Fishback had her own rules. The first Mrs. Fishback had had Robert M. Johnson, his mother's youngest child, brought into the house to work. But the new Mrs. Fishback was not keen on the idea of having him around. After his mother's death, Johnson took heed of what his mother had always told him, that when Mrs. Dorothea Fishback died it would be time for him to have a plan of escape and that he had to leave. 

Robert Johnson saved money, found private tutoring, and learned the geographic layout of routes to free states. At some point after his mother's death in 1841, the 24-year-old Johnson made his way to Frankfort, KY with about $13. He met with an Underground Railroad conductor who helped him get passage on a steamer to Cincinnati, OH. He did not receive a friendly welcome in Cincinnati nor at other stops in northern states, so he made his way to Canada where he later attended college and became an ordained minister.

SOURCES: "Lecture on American slavery, by an escaped slave," Essex Standard, 2/1/1865, vol. 35, issue 1781; "On Tuesday evening last ...," The Hampshire Chronicle, South Hampton and Isle of Wright Courier, 1/6/1866, p. 5; and Genealogy of the Fishback Family in America, by W. M. Kemper.

In 1854, Rev. R. M. Johnson was living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He was an anti-slavery activist. At the 1854 Colored People's Convention in Cleveland, OH, he was elected Chairman of the Finance Committee. There were 138 delegates from Canada and the United States. The group was in favor of African Americans emigrating to a new country. All in attendance were allowed to address the floor, but there was not to be a word in opposition to emigration.

Rev. Johnson was pastor of a church in Toronto. When he traveled to Buffalo, NY in July of 1857, he was said to be an Elder of a church. The visit to Buffalo was in search of funding to construct a new church. A few months later, in the winter of 1857, Rev. Johnson left Canada to attend college in Scotland.

SOURCES: "A Chance for the benevolent," The Buffalo Commercial, 7/13/1857, p. 3; and "The Colored People's Convention," The Summit Beacon, 8/30/1854, p. 2.

Rev. Johnson enrolled at the University of Edinburgh November 3, 1857. On that same day, Jesse Ewing Glasgow, an African American student from Philadelphia, PA, also enrolled at the university. Glasgow was studying the arts, and excelled in mathematics. He had almost finished his studies when he became ill and died in Edinburgh on December 20, 1860. After Glasgow's death, the academic year 1860-61 was the last that Robert M. Johnson was enrolled at the University of Edinburgh.

During his academic career, Robert M. Johnson had given lectures about his enslaved life in Lexington and spoken out against slavery. The presentations provided funds that went toward his medical education. It was those lectures that gained him the recognition as an abolitionist in Scotland and England. That recognition did not extend to the United States, however, and his name does not get mentioned in the U.S. history of African American abolitionists who took their campaigns to England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. 

SOURCES: "Watton LECTURE. - On Monday evening last, the Rev. M. Johnson, M.B.C.S. man of color," Norfolk News, 6/3/1865; "The Black abolitionist who shocked Victorian Britain," an article at the History Extra website, the official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed; and American Slaves in Victorian England: abolitionist politics in popular literature and culture, by Audrey Fisch.

One of Robert M. Johnson's early public lectures was in 1858 at the Free St. Paul's Church in Edinburgh [source: "Lecture on American Slavery," The Dundee Courier, 10/20/1858, p. 2]. In 1859, he gave a lecture entitled My Bondage, - My Freedom, - a Personal Narrative. The newspaper coverage of his presentation is in "Chalmers' Close Lectures," Scotsman, 4/14/1859, p. 2. This talk took place when Johnson was about halfway through his medical education. It is not known what financial means enabled him to attend the University of Edinburgh or what portion of those funds came from his public lectures. What is known is that he was a medical student for four years at the University of Edinburgh, and for most of that time he was also giving public lectures about his life. 

The following information was provided by Melissa Hawker.

From R. M. Johnson’s records at the University of Edinburgh. He studied Medicine for four academic years: 1857-58, 1858-59, 1859-60, and 1860-61. However, he didn't graduate in 1861.

This is a transcription of Johnson's entries in the matriculation (enrollment) album:

Date            Matriculation no.              Name            Origin           Year of study     Faculty

3 Nov. 1857         366                   R.M. Johnson    Canada West        1                     Med.

6 Dec. 1858         759                   R.M. Johnson    Canada West        2                     Med.

9 Nov. 1859         1096                 R.M. Johnson    Canada West        3                     Med.

27 Nov. 1860       1395                 R.M. Johnson         KY                    4                     Med.

Johnson graduated with a degree in medicine in England. He received his diploma and was admitted to the Royal College of Surgeons of England on May 19, 1863. In the newspaper announcement, the word Kaffraria was next to his name. Kaffraria [link to South African History Online] was a British colony in present day South Africa, established in 1847 and incorporated into the Cape Colony less than 20 years later. It is unknown if the word Kaffraria was added to Johnson's name because he was a black man or because he had been a medical missionary in the Kaffraria region. The Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society was established in 1841 and is the second oldest in the world. There were students from the school serving in African countries in the mid-1800s. The goal of the medical missionary was to deliver medicine and the message of the gospel.

Johnson had been a medical missionary, and according to a newspaper account, wanted to return as such to Kentucky to help those who had been enslaved. He continued giving public lectures after slavery ended in the United States with the  goal of earning enough money to take his family and return to the United States.

SOURCES: "On Tuesday evening last ...," The Hampshire Chronicle, South Hampton and Isle of Wright Courier, 1/6/1866, p. 5; "Royal College of Surgeons of England," Daily News, 5/20/1863, issue 5313; "The Walks," The Norfolk News, 5/13/1865; and C. M. Good, "Pioneer medical missions in colonial Africa," Social Science and Medicine, vol. 32, issue 1, 1991, pp. 1-10.  

Acquiring the necessary travel funds took Johnson a few years. He was in Europe after the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued by U.S. President Lincoln in 1863. While earning his travel funds, Johnson established his medical practice in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England. He preached sermons at various churches and continued giving lectures about his enslaved life in Lexington. On May 27, 1863 he married Mary Atkinson. In the newspaper announcement of the marriage, Johnson was said to be from Toronto, Canada.

Robert M. Johnson and his wife had thee children, all born in Sheffield. The family left England and immigrated to Canada in either 1870 or 1871. There was a fourth child born in Ontario in March  1871. The family had not been in North America very long when it was reported in the Sheffield newspaper that Robert M. Johnson died in Chatham, Ontario, Canada on May 13, 1871. His family remained in Canada and did not return to England. The entire family is listed in the 1871 Canadian Census conducted in April 1871. The children were 7-years-old to one month old.

SOURCES: "DEATHS," Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 5/31/1871, p. 3; "Robert M. Johnson," in England Marriages (Ancestry & FamilySearch); and "Marriages. Johnson-Atkinson," Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 5/28/1863, p. 3. Robert Maxwell Johnson's birth year is estimated as 1826 in the marriage index  and Census of Canada, 1871 (online).

There are many newspaper articles about the life of Robert Maxwell Johnson printed in newspapers in Scotland and England between 1858-1871. Access to the articles may be obtained in library holdings or in online subscription databases. In the United States, there are few newspaper articles or other references to the life of Robert Maxwell Johnson. Other sources that may provide additional information are government documents, public documents such as deeds and tax records, and organization and city directories.


In what country was Robert M. Johnson a citizen? 
At this time, it is not known if Rev. Dr. Robert Maxwell Johnson was considered a citizen of the United States, Canada, Scotland, or England. The Naturalization and citizenship records, documents, and laws during the 1800s will need to be consulted in each country to answer this question.

Was Robert M. Johnson an abolitionist in Sheffield?
From what has been learned to date, he moved to Sheffield around 1863 to practice medicine. He gave lectures about his life as an enslaved person in Kentucky. It is not known at this time if he held membership in any anti-slavery organizations in England. See J. Armstrong, "
Sheffield Archives reveal history of city links to slavery and fight to abolish it," The Star (online), 6/11/2020; and the  Slavery and Abolition Research Guide, by the Sheffield City Council.

Why did Robert M. Johnson return to Canada and not Kentucky?
According to newspaper articles, it was his intention to return to Kentucky. He had lived in Canada, so it may have been a personal choice because he had had stronger ties to Canada as a free person with opportunities. His connection to Kentucky was as an enslaved person with no rights.

Item Relations

Cite This NKAA Entry:

“Johnson, Robert Maxwell,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed June 19, 2024,

Last modified: 2024-06-12 13:19:36