8 Days: Standing for Freedom

William Still facilitated the escapes of many, many slaves. But his detailed record keeping and story telling of escapes was equally important. If not for Still, the story of the slave from Virginia who literally shipped himself to freedom might have gone unknown. Still was there to greet Henry “Box” Brown as he emerged from his crate. Such vivid images contributed significantly to the Underground Railroad’s identity and Still’s unofficial title as “Father of the Underground Railroad.”

But few stories – even Henry Brown’s – fails to deliver the sustained drama of the Jane Johnson’s story.

It started, as they all did, with an escape.  John H. Wheeler, Jane Johnson, and her two young sons were scheduled to leave Philadelphia the evening of July 18th, 1855, continuing on to New York. Earlier that day, Johnson went against her master’s instructions, speaking to the staff at Bloodgood’s Hotel. She spoke of her desire to abandon slavery.  This set off a chain of events among an extended group of players that rather quickly led to Johnson’s stand for freedom.

Upon receiving a note, William Still contacted Passmore Williamson, who originally hesitated but joined in on this race against time.  Still and Williamson met at the waterfront, rushing to the ferry only minutes before it was scheduled to pull away from the dock at 5 PM.  Informing Johnson of her right to be free, and offering her the moment to embrace her freedom – in spite of the intimidating presence of her master – Still and Williamson then guided Johnson and her sons from the ferry to a waiting carriage.

As the seconds ticked away, everyone played their parts. The staff at Bloodgood’s Hotel. The note runners. The five African-American dock workers who closed in on the scene, reassuring Johnson that this effort was collaborative, if not choreographed.  Even an indifferent police officer was in on the act.

The carriage with Still, Williamson, Johnson and her sons raced across town, down 10th Street, and finally to Still’s home on Ronaldson’s Court, a small street east of 10th, above what is now Bainbridge Street. “It was a quick operation,” Williamson later wrote.  “The whole affair was over and I back in my office in less that 3/4ths of an hour.”

Soon, Williamson would pay for this forty-five minute “operation” with his own freedom.  Meanwhile, Johnson went on to New York, and ultimately to Massachusetts, where she eventually settled.  But she soon returned, one final time, to Philadelphia. 

That, too, would be a dramatic and dangerous scene.


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