History, or Herstory? Fannie Willis Johnson Home gives a glimpse at lifelong philanthropist

Published 4:33 pm Monday, March 21, 2022

Nestled on a quiet block of Drummond Street is a stately home filled with beautiful views, its fair share of stories and more than a couple of nicknames.

The Fannie Vick Willis Johnson Home is also known as Stained Glass Manor and Oak Hall Bed and Breakfast — or, if you’re an old-school Vicksburger, it’s got an entirely different name altogether.

“When we bought the home, all the locals said, ‘Oh, that’s the Old Ladies’ Home,’ owner Elizabeth Nelson said. “Then we started digging through and found out it was the protestant widow’s home.”

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Regardless of its nickname, the Fannie Willis Johnson Home is a sight to behold thanks to its 32 original stained glass windows, art glass light fixtures and mission revival architecture. Built in 1910, it is considered “new construction” in comparison with fellow homes in the Fostoria neighborhood.

The home served as the Johnsons’ city house when they weren’t staying at Panther Burn Plantation, which Fannie, a relative of Vicksburg’s forefather, Newitt Vick, inherited from her parents. Junius died in 1919 when a tornado hit Panther Burn and the big house collapsed and crushed him. Fannie sold the plantation for $1 million and lived on the Drummond Street property full-time.

Most notably in her lifetime of philanthropic contributions, Johnson used part of her fortune to build Black and white YMCA buildings in her husband’s name — a total contribution of more than half a million dollars, according to data compiled by the Catfish Row museum.

Johnson also had a soft spot for those who were orphaned or widowed. In 1930, a year before her death, she deeded the Duff Green Mansion as a memorial for a protestant boys’ home. After her death, with an endowment from her estate, the home was known as the Fannie Willis Johnson Protestant and Ladies Home. The home operated until 1966.

New life for the Manor

Nelson and her husband, Don, bought the home in 2016 after selling their property in Dallas, Texas. They were no strangers to Vicksburg, using the city as a stopping point on their travels to see family in Georgia, but once they saw the home, Nelson said it was a done deal.

“We found the house and said, ‘Let’s explore Vicksburg and see what it’s all about.’ We found that it had a lot of the qualities as Savannah, from when we lived there near the riverfront,” she said. “Vicksburg had a lot of the same components, it’s just smaller. It just seemed to be like, a little undiscovered with a lot of upside potential.”

In addition to the stained glass which made the home famous, Nelson’s home also boasts seven bedrooms and a converted carriage house. Five of the bedrooms are available under the Oak Hall B&B moniker, as well as the carriage house.

The renovation process was not easy, Nelson said, as time and being vacant for many years took its toll on the home. However, with a little elbow grease, some dedicated craftsmen and an interior designer with an eye for simplicity, the home reached its current state.

Now that it’s open for business, Nelson said she also wants to ensure her home is open for entertainment as well.

“Don and I both love architecture, particularly historic architecture. … This is by far the largest, most extravagant home we’ve ever lived in, and our philosophy is, ‘Why have a house like this if you’re not going to share it with others?'” she said. “I  can’t imagine not opening the home. We think it’s incredible, and when we see people walk through the door, their reaction… I can’t imagine having a historic home and not opening the doors.”

Friendly Haunts

While rumors persist that the home, like others in Vicksburg, is haunted, Nelson said she’s yet to have any scary interactions with residents from beyond the grave.

Instead, it seems as though they just want to enjoy a fun evening at home.

“The only thing I could say is, sometimes in the middle of the night, I do hear music playing in the distance,” she said. “It’s almost as if you left the radio on. I’ll go looking for it and can’t find it. Maybe it’s the ladies having a party.”

Or maybe, it’s Fannie Willis Johnson herself.

What’s in a name?

For Nelson, the home’s historic fixtures and architecture are nice, but the real charm comes from the woman who built it.

It seems Oak Hall B&B’s history is just as multifaceted as the stained glass windows adorning its walls — even more so, if possible.

“The architecture is over the top, but the more we’ve gotten to know Fannie’s story, and what she did for Vicksburg, and then the fact that it was a widow’s home and all she did to give back to the community, that’s far more interesting than the beautiful windows and light fixtures,” Nelson said. “She’s definitely inspiring. … The fact that she did not want publicity, that there are no photos of her, makes it even more awesome. That is the legacy she left behind.

“There are a lot of amazing strong female leaders in Vicksburg today, and they’re making a difference just like she did.”