21 Days: The Story Carriers

“A lot of stories have gotten lost in the smoke of history,” wrote Wil Haygood in The Boston Globe on September 26, 1995. “Maybe a million and one slave stories.”

Impressed with Lorene Cary’s The Price of a Child, Haygood was pleased to find this one particular story back in print. William Still, who had carried it around in memory for seventeen years, had shared it in his Underground Railroad of 1872.

This post is about the story carriers – who also became story sharers. If not for them, Jane Johnson’s tale would most probably have disappeared in that “smoke of history.”

“This is what happened in this city on July 18, 1855,” Haygood continues. “Jane Johnson, a strong-shouldered slave woman, stepped onto a dock with her master. She had come from Virginia. Once here, she sent word along the shaded streets where free Negroes lived that she wanted to escape.”

Once out, such stories take on lives of their own. And before long, when it works, everyone is a story carrier and the story itself becomes part of a greater narrative. But we’re not there yet with Jane Johnson. Where this story is, where it has been for the last couple of decades, is somewhere on the cusp of universality.

Who is the force behind this? That would be Phil Lapsansky, the quiet, persistent curator of African American collections for nearly four decades at the Library Company of Philadelphia. (Watch the brief video.) If not for Lapsansky, Jane Johnson’s story would certainly be dormant still. Cary learned about Johnson from Lapsansky around 1990. It inspired her fictionalized version which subsequently enjoyed selection by the Free Library of Philadelphia and the Office of the Mayor for the One Book One Philadelphia Program. And the Brandts learned the story from Lapsansky. Their new book, In the Shadow of the Civil War, marks the first time the facts of the story have been researched, laid out and presented in full detail.

Lapsansky knew that his stewardship of the story came with the responsibility to work behind the scenes. When Cary’s book was selected as the One Book choice in 2003, he wrote up the Jane Johnson story for the Library Company’s website. Of course, his work behind the scenes started long before that, manifesting itself in the form of living, breathing, day-to-day guidance to interested researchers. Occasionally, his knowledge and experience would find a more permanent form of expression. In 1990, a catalog for the exhibition entitled Legacy In Light: Photographic Treasures from Philadelphia Area Public Collections, included a daguerreotype portrait of Passmore Williamson in prison. That offered Lapsansky his first opportunity to retell the story that Still, and then he, had long carried.

It’s our story, now. What kind of stewards will we prove to be? Will we be worthy story carriers?

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