Johanna “Chona” Phillips July Wilkes Lasley (also spelled Johana or Joanna, and often referred to during her life as Wannah as well as by her Seminole basket name/nickname, “Chona”), member of the Black Seminole community, skilled horse breaker, and Federal Writers’ Project interviewee, was born in approximately October 1860 in the nineteenth-century Black Seminole settlement near Nacimiento, Mexico (present day Nacimiento de los Negros, Coahuila, Mexico). Much of Johanna July’s story comes from portions of a summary and oral history interview, collected and written by interviewer Florence Angermiller (later Florence Angermiller Fenley)—one of the more than 300 writers who worked for the Folklore Project of the Federal Writers’ Project. The project was part of a New Deal jobs program under the Work Projects Administration (WPA) from 1936 to 1940. Johanna July’s WPA interview has been cited by numerous historians in printed works, public history exhibits and collections, and living history re-enactments.
According to information accumulated from different sources, including United States census records, United States military records, and her marriage and death certificates, Johanna’s mother was Jennie Bruner (also spelled Bruno), and her father’s last name was Phillips. Her father was likely the Black Seminole U.S. Army Scout Ned Philips.
Johanna’s family dated back to the leaders of the Black Seminoles in Florida, a multiracial community of African and Muscogee-Creek American Indian heritage. As part of the era marked by the mental and physical terror known as “Indian removal” in the 1830s, which aimed to appropriate land for white American settlers, the Phillips family and other prominent Black Seminole families were forced to migrate to Fort Gibson in Oklahoma and subsequently escaped to a ranch, Hacienda de Nacimiento, in Mexico. It was there that Johanna, her brother Joseph Phillips, and other Black Seminoles of their generation were born. Members of the Black Seminoles scouted for the Mexican government in exchange for land and citizenship. Around 1869, however, some members of the Black Seminole community at Nacimiento sought to return to the United States. In 1870 Ned Phillips was among the first Black Seminole scouts to join the United States Army and a unit named “Seminole Negro Indian Scouts.” The unit formed under an agreement negotiated between Black Seminole leader John Kibbetts and U.S. Army Capt. Frank W. Perry and Maj. Zenas R. Bliss of the Twenty-fifth United States Infantry.
Johanna’s family settled near Fort Duncan, north of Eagle Pass, Texas, where, according to her WPA interview, her father broke horses for the army, farmed, and raised livestock. Ned Phillips served for a number of brief enlistment periods before his final discharge date in 1872, and according to Johanna’s interview, he likely passed away soon after his discharge. The Black Seminole culture at the time had definite gender-specific work. Typically, women tended the house and men the livestock; however, Johanna was fond of horses and explained in her WPA interview that she learned to ride from Seminole scout Adam Wilson. She became an expert horse breaker; consequently, her parents allowed her to care for and train animals. When Johanna’s father died, she continued his work.
Johanna explained to Angermiller her method of breaking horses. She put on her clothes that needed washing and led the horse to the Rio Grande. July pulled the horse into the deep water forcing it to swim. She stayed in the water until the horse tired and then she hopped on its back and rode out of the river. Her method of gentling the horse took advantage of the terrain and lessened her chore of cleaning her garments.
When Johanna turned eighteen, she married Carolina July, an army scout who lived at Las Moras Creek near Fort Clark in Kinney County, Texas. The marriage certificate of Carlino July (in all other records listed as Carolina July) to Chona Fellips is dated 1877 for Kinney County. The union soon fell apart. July explained in her interview that one night after an argument escalated, July crept to her neighbor’s house and stole a horse. She rode most of the night to the safety of her mother’s home in Eagle Pass. The 1880 census has a “Jona July” at the same residence as a J. Phillips, who was likely Johanna/Chona and her mother Jennie.
According to July’s interview, on several occasions, her husband tried to take her back, but she eluded both his capture and his bullets. She told the WPA interviewer that she was sure he would have killed her had he caught her. Carolina July died in 1884. Sometime after 1880 Johanna married Alexander “Alex” Wilkes, a soldier stationed at Fort Duncan. During these years Johanna gave birth to four children: John Fitzgerald Wilkes, Ned Wilkes, Lucinda Wilkes, and Amanda Wilkes. Johanna listed herself as a widow on the 1900 census and had all four children living with her in Eagle Pass.
Johanna remarried for the last time on February 16, 1909, to Charles Lasley. They ran a successful business raising cattle, breaking horses, and selling hides. Charles died in 1925. In 1928 Johanna filed for a U. S. military pension as the widow of Carolina July. The pension record listed her as “Jhonar Lasley” and also made reference to Alexander Wilkes. In her WPA interview, Johanna explained that she received a little money in connection to her first husband. This was likely from his military pension and may explain why she gave her name as Johanna July to the WPA interviewer. A WPA photograph of her, however, lists her name as “Johanna Lesley, ex-slave, Brackettville.” Hers was one of multiple photos taken of the Black Seminole community (including a Black Seminole woman listed as Rose Faye) in 1937 in Brackettville and included in the Portraits of African American ex-slaves from the U.S. Works Progress Administration, Federal Writers' Project slave narratives collections housed at the Library of Congress. Neither Rose Fay (Rosa Dixon Fay) nor Johanna Lasley/July were ever enslaved.
By 1940 Johanna lived on Rufford Street in Brackettville, Texas, next to her granddaughter Ora Mae (Roach) Brown and Brown’s family. Her death certificate, which listed her name as “Joanna Phillips Lasely,” her father’s surname as Phillips, and her mother as Jennie Bruno, recorded her death as January 18, 1942, in Brackettville. Her great-nephew, William Warrior, stated in a 1990s interview with author Shirley Boteler Mock that Johanna was buried in Brackettville. Confirmed by the death certificate, she was buried in the Seminole Cemetery now called the Seminole Indian Scouts Cemetery, the burial location for a large portion of the Black Seminole Scouts, their families, and descendants, in Brackettville.