Johnson Collins (1847–1906)


Johnson Collins represented Brunswick County in the 1879–1880 session of the General Assembly. Little is known about Collins’s life. Most likely he was born enslaved in Norfolk, and by 1870 he lived in Brunswick. In 1879 Collins won a three-person race for the House of Delegates, defeating two white candidates who disagreed on how to pay Virginia’s antebellum debt. During his term he voted with the ReadjusterRepublican coalition that controlled the assembly session. He did not seek reelection in 1881. Some time in the next six years Collins moved with his family to Washington, D.C., where he died in 1906.

Collins was born in August 1847 in Virginia, probably into slavery. Information about him is scarce, and the scattered documents that mention him often contain inconsistencies or suggest that those who recorded the information may not have known much about him. It is possible, but by no means certain, that he was a Norfolk native who married Rebecca Fuller in that city on July 11, 1866. A marriage license identifies the groom on that occasion as John H. Collins, a twenty-one-year-old student and son of Margaret Collins. What is certain is that in the summer of 1870 Johnson Collins, Rebecca Collins, and their sons, ages three and one, were living near his brother, a tanner, in Brunswick County. He and his wife later had two other children who died in infancy or childhood. Collins worked as a laborer, but so far as land and tax records show, he never owned any real estate. He may occasionally have used only his surname. The census enumerator in 1870 listed him as Collin Collins and his younger son, who was thereafter usually called Johnson Collins Jr., as Collin Collins Jr.

In November 1879 Collins narrowly won a three-way race for a seat representing Brunswick County in the House of Delegates. He defeated two white men, the Republican incumbent who favored paying off the antebellum state debt in full and a Readjuster who wanted to reduce the amount of the debt to be paid and to refinance the balance at a lower interest rate. Two voters cast ballots for Collin Johnson, suggesting continued confusion about his name or that he was not well known in some parts of the county.

William Mahone

Identified in one newspaper as a Republican and in another as a Readjuster, Collins served in the General Assembly that met from December 3, 1879, through March 9, 1880. He was appointed to a low-ranking seat on the Committee on Federal Relations and Resolutions and to the lowest-ranking seat on the relatively inconsequential Committee on Public Property. At the opening of the session Collins voted with the dominant coalition of Republicans and Readjusters to elect the Speaker, clerk, and other House officers and again two weeks later when the assembly elected the Readjuster leader William Mahone to the U.S. Senate. Collins supported a proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate the poll tax as a prerequisite for voting and another measure that the Readjusters favored to reduce the tax on vendors of malt liquor, spirits, and wine. On March 1, 1880, he voted for a bill to reduce the principal of the public debt by about 40 percent and to refinance the remainder at 3 percent interest. Called the Riddleberger Bill, after its sponsor, state senator Harrison Holt Riddleberger, it passed, but the governor vetoed the measure, and the Senate of Virginia sustained the veto.

In June 1880, when Collins gave information about his family to the census taker, who recorded his name correctly this time, he identified himself as a literate laborer and added, perhaps with pride, that he was a member of the state legislature, a fact the enumerator carefully recorded. Collins did not seek reelection in 1881 but received six votes anyway. Sometime during the next half-dozen years he and his family moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a watchman for about two decades. Collins died of heart disease in Washington on November 3, 1906, and was buried in the city’s Columbian Harmony Cemetery. In 1960 all of the graves were removed to National Harmony Memorial Park in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

August 1847
Johnson Collins is born in Virginia, probably into slavery.
July 11, 1866
John H. Collins and Rebecca Fuller marry in Norfolk. The groom may be Johnson Collins, who will go on to represent Brunswick County in the 1879—1880 session of the General Assembly.
Summer 1870
Johnson Collins, Rebecca Collins, and their sons reside in Brunswick County.
November 1879
Johnson Collins wins a three-way race for a seat representing Brunswick County in the House of Delegates.
December 3, 1879—March 9, 1880
Johnson Collins serves in the General Assembly.
November 3, 1906
Johnson Collins dies of heart disease in Washington, D.C.
  • Jackson, Luther Porter. Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895. Norfolk, Virginia: Guide Quality Press, 1945.
  • Moore, James Tice. Two Paths to the New South: The Virginia Debt Controversy, 1870–1883. [Lexington]: University Press of Kentucky, 1974.
  • Tarter, Brent. “Collins, Johnson.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 3, edited by Sara B. Bearss, et al., 379. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2006.
APA Citation:
Tarter, Brent & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Johnson Collins (1847–1906). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/collins-johnson-1847-1906.
MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Johnson Collins (1847–1906)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 21 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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