Marking Jane Johnson’s Freedom

You may remember the conversation we had here at The Sixth Square last summer, the one about Jane Johnson, the woman who escaped slavery while passing through Philadelphia in summer of 1855.

Through that effort, a group resolved to support the submission of a proposal for a historical marker to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. That submission is due in January.

We think it’s a worthy cause, designating the place at the foot of Walnut Street, near the very spot where Johnson deeclared her own freedom.

So we’re calling on you, Jane Johnson’s community of interest, to help us draft the text for Jane Johnson’s marker in 40 words or so.  To get things started, we gave it a go in this first draft:

On July 18th, 1855, while traveling through Philadelphia with her master and two children, Jane Johnson declared her freedom.  Aided by William Still and others, Johnson escaped from the deck the Camden ferry and challenged the Fugitive Slave Law.

What do you think?

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10 Comments on “Marking Jane Johnson’s Freedom”

  1. Craig Bruns Says:

    Great to see this moving! Go Ken!
    I suggest the following changes tweeks…

    Jane Johnson declaired her freedom when escorted by her master through the free city of Philadelphia on July 18th, 1855. Aided by William Still and others, Johnson and her children escaped from the deck of the Camden bound ferry and challenged the Federal Fugitive Slave Law.

    I see a need to suggest why she was uniquely able to do this in Philadelphia, perhasps use “free”city? “Free” also sets up an opposition to “master. “I moved the “children” to the second sentence to make the first sentence more direct. Camden “bound” ferry defines the function of the ferry and the intended direction of their journey. I’m not sure if “federal” is the proper term but we should suggest the nature of the law which she challenged.

  2. mxpark Says:

    Why are there no visible archives on this blog? I want to catch up! And no categories or tags?

  3. Ken Says:

    For the Jane Johnson Day archive go to
    https://whyy.wordpress.com/category/jane-johnson-day/

    I like the revised proposed writeup, except for the word “escorted.” (Seems too much like an evening out.) Any other ideas for a word to describe moving the enslaved from place to place?

    And at 46 words, it needs some trimming. How about deleting “and challenged the Federal Fugitive Slave Law”?

  4. Craig Bruns Says:

    I agree “escorted” does sound like a date! Gees, what would be a better word, Transported? We’ll have to see what else is suggested. The law aspect is secondary to her freedom and for a panel such as this, perhaps not needed. In place of those seven words, could there be made a reference to the abolitionist headquarters around the corner – that marker is currently under repair (fell down). Or, that the waterfront was a very active underground railroad passage?

  5. Ken Says:

    Here’s the latest at 41 words:

    Jane Johnson seized her freedom while being transported by her master through the free city of Philadelphia on July 18th, 1855. Johnson and two of her three children escaped from the deck of the Camden bound ferry aided by William Still.

  6. John Brady Says:

    I like the idea of a marker but a sculpture would be much better. The drama of the moment and the message of freedom would give the right artist a great starting point. This is a subject not yet adequately covered by our public sculptures and monuments and this might be the perfect place to begin.

  7. Ken Says:

    Good idea. When I first learned the Jane Johnson story, years ago, I imagined it interpreted as a sculpture. I’m no artist, so take what I suggest accordingly, but the idea of representing standing for one’s own freedom seems to offer interesting opportunities.

    And that may happen, someday. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth’s historical marker program offers a chance to plant the seed of the idea about Johnson at that site in 2008.

  8. V. Chapman-Smith Says:

    Hi Ken!

    Sorry about the delay in responding. I do think we need to honor more than William Still in this effort, particularly since Passmore Williamson was the person who was tried in federal court for aiding her. Here is a 40 word version.

    “Jane Johnson seized freedom for herself and her two children, while being transported by her master through the free city of Philadelphia on July 18, 1855. They escaped on the Camden bound ferry, aided by the Philadelphia Underground Railroad network.”

    Let me know if the application requires listing of the financial sponsors. Both GPTMC and the National Archives have offerred to support this.

  9. Liz McClearn Says:

    The text proposed by V. Chapman-Smith is great, but to make the account more clear and accurate, I suggest changing it to “The escaped FROM the Camden bound ferry…”

    Also, the mention of the Fugitive Slave Act has disappeared. I would argue that Johnson’s challenging of that law is very important to her story.

  10. Lorene Cary Says:

    Thank you so much, Ken, and everyone in the community for this work. Agree with all comments, down to last “from the …ferry.”

    This is just great.


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