When Jane Johnson compromised her freedom for the individuals who enabled her to escape from slavery


When Jane Johnson compromised her freedom for the individuals who enabled her to escape from slavery, on July 18, 1855, Colonel John H. Wheeler, who had recently been appointed U.S. Minister to Nicaragua, landed in Philadelphia with plans to proceed on to New York City and then by ship to Central America. A well-known North Carolina slaveholder, he was accompanied by his family and three of his slaves – Jane Johnson and her two boys.

Wheeler understood quite well that traveling with Johnson and her two sons was not a good idea as they were enslaved property and may be freed at any time in Philadephia, where slavery was forbidden. Pennsylvania had in 1780 established what was the country’s first emancipation statute, making the state the first site in the history of the globe to begin the end of slavery, according to historians.


Per a stipulation under the 1780 statute, slaveowners visiting Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, were allowed to retain an individual enslaved for six months. But in 1847, some years before Johnson and her slaveowner arrived in Philadelphia, officials in Pennsylvania abolished that clause. “That meant the suddenly, the moment someone brought the slave into the state, that slave was free,” Paul Finkelman, an American legal historian, was stated by Smithsonian Magazine.


All in all, the 1780 statute turned Philadelphia into a destination for free Blacks in America. History indicates that throughout the early 1800s, many Black migrants who wished to escape southern slavery fled into the Pennsylvania counties, where many of them were guided by “conductors” on the Underground Railroad into New York and on to Canada. But this became problematic following the introduction of the federal Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, which forced northern citizens to trace and return fugitive slaves to their southern masters. In addition, the law threatened anyone who supported fleeing slaves with prosecution and imprisonment.


And it was during this period that antislavery societies, including the Vigilant Association of Philadelphia (later the Vigilant Committee), emerged in Pennsylvania, aiding people seeking freedom with shelter, food, and direction. Kidnappers at the same time hunted for escaped slaves and freed Black people to sell them back into slavery.


In July 1855, when Wheeler and Johnson and her children arrived in Philadelphia, Wheeler knew that the instant someone brought a slave into the state, per the statutes, the slave was free. So, he instructed Johnson that if anyone asked her who she was, she should pretend she was a free Black lady traveling with a preacher.


On July 18, before Wheeler made preparations to travel with his family, including Johnson and her two children to Central America by way of New York, he chose to eat supper at the Bloodgood’s Hotel on the river near to the ferry that would carry them to Camden and on to New York. Even though he dined away from Johnson and her sons, he watched them intently.


Johnson’s intention at the time was to flee to New York, but she realized she could accomplish that now. “I and my children are slaves, and I want liberty,” she told a Black restaurant worker at the hotel, who pledged to help, an article by the Smithsonian Magazine reported. By 4:30 p.m. on July 18, 1855, the young Black restaurant worker rushed to the office of the Vigilance Committee, which was within the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society (PASS) headquarters.


The worker had drafted a memo outlining Johnson’s request. He delivered the note to abolitionist William Still, who worked as a clerk at PASS and was the leader of a team of four that supported individuals seeking freedom. With just 30 minutes for Wheeler to depart Philadelphia, Still alerted Passmore Williamson, the only White man on his team, of Johnson’s request. By the time Still and Williamson arrived in Johnson among five Black dockworkers, she was set to leave with Wheeler and her two sons, aged six and 10.


She was sat on a steamboat’s upper storm deck with her two youngsters. Johnson, according to the report by Smithsonian Magazine, later testified to the following exchange under oath.


“Are you traveling with someone?” Still asked Johnson.


Johnson answered Yes.


“I want to speak to your servant and advise her of her rights,” Williamson said Wheeler.


“If you have anything to say, say it to me. She knows her rights,” Wheeler added.


Williamson asked Johnson if she wanted her freedom. She stated she did but belonged to Wheeler.

“You are as free as your master,” Williamson assured her. “If you want your freedom, come now. If you go back to Washington, you may never receive it.”


Wheeler, who began protesting, was restrained by the dockworkers. Nevertheless, Johnson and her sons still took to a waiting carriage that brought them to his home in the city in what Williamson subsequently characterized as “a fast operation.” Wheeler appealed to his buddy, Judge John Kane of the Federal District Court, who called Williamson before him with a writ of habeas corpus directing him to bring Johnson and her two kids before the bench.


Williamson informed the judge it was impossible since Still had told him that Johnson was safe without mentioning where she was. Kane, after a week, charged Williamson with contempt and ordered him to federal jail. Newspapers for over three months carried Williamson’s tale, stating that a federal court was wrongfully detaining him in prison. At the same time, Wheeler had also named Williamson in a civil case after he filed charges of riot, assault, and battery against Still and the dock workers who came for Johnson.


Wheeler claimed that the group threatened to slit his throat, and the defense knew this would not help them in court. At that moment, they had to get a defendant. Johnson risked her freedom and emerged from hiding. On August 29, 1855, she emerged as a surprise witness at the trial of Still and the five dockworkers who had been accused of assault and battery.


She came alongside a police officer and four Quaker women who accompanied her to the crowded courtroom. There, she told the court that she had not been violently taken. “I went away of my own free will,” she testified. Thanks to her testimony, Still and three of the men were acquitted. Two others were convicted of assault but received fines of $10 and prison sentences of one week.


While Johnson and her colleagues were leaving the courthouse, they were pursued by federal marshals determined to arrest her. But state and local officials were there to safeguard her from federal detention. Records show that her carriage went fast through the streets, accompanied by police officers protecting her. She even had to change carriages multiple times on her journey out of Philadelphia.


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