14 Days: The Main Players

One Independence Day down; one to go.

That’s right. Philadelphia has two of them: July 4th and July 18th. The former, long the official day, is literally when officials called it quits from British rule. The latter, Jane Johnson’s Day, marks the time – no less than 79 Independence Days later – when one woman called it quits from slavery. Over the next two weeks, leading up to the moment Jane Johnson stood in Philadelphia to deny slavery and embrace freedom, we’ll introduce her story.

Today we’ll introduce the main players:

JANE JOHNSON – The determined enslaved woman en route to Nicaragua with her master and her two sons. Johnson was planning to escape in New York City, but her desire for freedom, and the opportunity to seize it, enabled her to make the spontaneous decision on Philadelphia’s waterfront. As if that wasn’t thrilling enough, Johnson later returned from the underground, jeopardizing her newfound freedom, to testify at the trial of one of her enablers.

JOHN KINTZING KANE – Strictly adhering to both the law and his personal biases, Judge Kane engaged in a legal standoff with Passmore Williamson, one of Johnsons’s enablers. The Judge imprisoned Williamson for months. For Kane, prison was the universal solution. He also imprisoned his own son, Thomas, for abolitionist efforts.

WILLIAM STILL- After a chance reunion with his brother in 1852, Still began recording the stories of fugitive slaves passing through Philadelphia. Jane Johnson’s story proved to be one that Still found among the most thrilling, recording it for the first time in his book, The Underground Railroad.

JOHN H. WHEELER- A close friend of President Franklin Pierce, Wheeler owned Jane Johnson. The native of North Carolina had dined at the White House just before his visit to Philadelphia. Wheeler was passing through, on his way to New York, to serve as the U.S. Minister to Nicaragua.

PASSMORE WILLIAMSON – An activist Quaker abolitionist, Williamson looked more the part of scrivener – which he was. Williamson had appeared before Kane in court at earlier times to defend the rights of fugitive slaves. This time, he was met with Kane’s fury and found himself locked up – for months – in Moyamensing Prison.




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One Comment on “14 Days: The Main Players”

  1. Those interested in the story of the rescue of Jane Johnson might also be interested in the web-site at Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College including contemporary letters and photographs related to the Johnson case.

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