16 Days: Jane Johnson’s Story

As told by Phil Lapsansky:

“On July 18,1855, [Passmore] Williamson and a black leader of the underground railroad, William Still, intercepted Colonel John Wheeler of North Carolina, his slave Jane Johnson and her two young sons as they were boarding the Camden ferry. The abolitionists informed Johnson that she was free under Pennsylvania law.  Johnson agreed; Wheeler protested.  Williamson probably restrained Wheeler with the help of at least two others while the Johnsons were escorted to a waiting carriage—and to freedom.

“Earlier that day, Wheeler had lodged his slaves at Bloodgood’s Hotel on Walnut Street.  Johnson had talked with a maid, who sent a hasty note to Still informing him of the situation. Still, in turn, sent a note to Williamson. The two arrived at the ferry at the same time, and the incident took place.  ‘The whole affair was over and I back to my office in less than 3/4ths of an hour,’ Williamson later wrote.

“Federal Judge Kane, known for his pro-slavery sympathies, issued a writ of habeas corpus ordering Williamson to produce Wheeler’s slaves.  [At Williamson’s trial] “Johnson appeared as a surprise witness and refuted the charges of abduction. For fear of reenslavement (which federal authorities threatened) a phalanx of female abolitionists headed by Lucretia Mott whisked Johnson in and out of court. Her ‘ladylike air, propriety of language and timidity of manner,’ according to one reporter, engendered favorable audiences. Johnson testified: ‘I went away of my own free will. I always wished to be free and meant to be free when I came North. I had rather die than go back.’

“Jane [Johnson] quickly left the courthouse followed by federal marshals determined to arrest her. State and local authorities were just as determined to protect the witness and the integrity of local courts and vowed resistance. [Her] flight from the courtroom was described in a letter by Lucretia Mott: ‘We didn’t drive slow coming home Miller [J. Miller McKim, chairman of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society], an officer, Jane & self — another carriage following with 4 officers for protection. Miller & the slave passed quickly through our house, up Cuthbert St. to the same carriage, who drove around to elude pursuit. They drove to Broad & Coates, where the Hallowell boys were ready to receive her with carriage & horse coach & conveyed her to Millers & lest she should be pursued…

“After Jane [Johnson’s] dramatic visit here she returned to New York and later settled in Boston. … On May 26, 1856, Boston black activist William Cooper Nell wrote [Passmore Williamson]: ‘Jane Johnson called in this morning … She requested my informing you that she now lives No. 1 Southack Court — and is quite well. Her boys are progressing finely at School [and] for all these advantages of freedom she feels heartfelt gratitude…”

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