David Johnson was born into slavery in Prince William County, Virginia, on 11 May 1822. As a boy he was brought to Missouri by his owners, a family named Hose. In approximately 1848, he married Harriet Harbison, and they became the parents of thirteen children. Johnson subsequently moved to Illinois where he rented and worked on farms near Mattoon and Neoga. He and his family came to Champaign in 1863. During the Civil War, Johnson was a wagoner in the Union Army. At the end of the war he returned to Champaign and worked as a laborer, and after the death of his first wife, married Anna Washington. Johnson died on 9 November 1908. The funeral was held at Second Baptist Church in Champaign, with burial at Mt. Hope Cemetery, Urbana.