President Lincoln pays his Black personal valet—"William Johnson (Colored)"—the sum of $5 in 1862, one of three known checks from Lincoln to Black people
Extraordinary Riggs & Co. bank check, 7.5 x 2.75, filled out and signed by Abraham Lincoln as president, "A. Lincoln," payable to "William Johnson (Colored)" for $5, October 27, 1862. The check is printed in several bold decorative types, with a fine wood-engraved vignette of the bank's Washington headquarters, decorative border on four sides, and numbered "12" by President Lincoln in top left-hand corner. In very good to fine condition, with light staining to the edges and multiple vertical folds. Encapsulated and graded by PSA/DNA as "NM-MT 8."
Only two other Lincoln checks addressed to Black people have appeared at auction in the last 40 years, and both were also for the amount of $5. In October 1984, a check Lincoln wrote to "Colored man, with 1 leg" sold for $16,000 at Sotheby's, lot 138; this check was crude in that Lincoln's signature had been cut from the original check and a replacement Lincoln signature from another check had been patched on. Also, in an Ira and Larry Goldberg Auction (November 2005, lot 271), a check to "Lucy (colored woman)," dated February 21, 1865, realized $55,200. It is uncertain who Lucy was, perhaps a friend of Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress Elizabeth Keckley. The rarity of checks written by Lincoln as President on Riggs & Co. checks cannot be understated—the 1865 “Lucy” check is numbered “28,” and this check from October 1862 is numbered “12.” Lincoln’s checks from his pre-presidential days, drawn on Springfield Marine and Fire Insurance Company bank, are more frequently seen.
William H. Johnson was a free Black servant—a valet with some barbering duties—who accompanied the president-elect on his journey from Springfield to Washington, D.C. The New York Times of February 19, 1861, described Johnson as "'a very useful member of the party[,]' whose 'untiring vigilance' as 'he took care of the Presidential party is entitled to high credit'" (quoted in Michael Burlingame's Abraham Lincoln: A Life, 2:24).
Johnson initially worked in the Executive Mansion stoking the furnace, but he was made unwelcome by other White House workers: "the other black employees, all light-skinned, objected to his dark complexion so vehemently that Lincoln had to find him another post" (Burlingame, 2:252).
First Lincoln tried to secure a position for Johnson with Gideon Welles, but to no avail. On November 29, 1861, Lincoln wrote to another cabinet member, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, on Johnson's behalf: "You remember kindly asking me, some time ago, whether I really desired you to find a place for William Johnson, a colored boy who came from Illinois with me. If you can find him the place [I] shall really be obliged" (National Archives; Basler 5:33). Later, three days prior to writing this check, on October 24, 1862, Lincoln penned another recommendation for Johnson: "The bearer of this, William Johnson (colored), came with me from Illinois; and is a worthy man, as I believe" (Illinois State Historical Library).
Johnson was eventually hired as a porter at the Treasury Department, but Lincoln continued to monitor his progress. Lincoln occasionally hired him for short-term jobs and particularly for travel. Most significantly, Johnson accompanied Lincoln, as valet and bodyguard, to Gettysburg for the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery. This trip was particularly consequential for Johnson. The President developed varioloid, a mild version of smallpox, on his return from Washington, while Johnson himself contracted a fatal case of smallpox; he died in January 1864. It is possible that Johnson caught the disease from the President, although Lincoln himself did not believe that was the case.
Lincoln's solicitude for William Johnson extended beyond the latter's death. The Chicago Tribune of January 19, 1864, carried a story from its Washington correspondent describing how he came upon Lincoln counting out Johnson's pay, while explaining, "a President of the United States has a multiplicity of duties not specified in the Constitution or acts of Congress. This is one of them. The money belongs to a poor negro who is a porter in one of the departments and who is at present very bad with the smallpox.…He is now in hospital, and could not draw his pay because he could not sign his name. I have been at considerable trouble to overcome the difficulty and get it for him, and have at length succeeded in cutting red tape" (Burlingame, 2:578). Another newspaper reported that Lincoln purchased a coffin for Johnson and helped settle a loan he had taken from the First National Bank of Washington. When the arrangements had been concluded, the bank's cashier, William J. Huntington, said, "'After this, Mr. President, you can never deny that you indorse the negro.' 'That's a fact!' Lincoln exclaimed with a laugh; 'but I don't intend to deny it'" (Burlingame, 2:578-79).