The Library Company’s Jane Johnson Online Exhibit
By Julie Carleton
In July of 1855, an African American female slave from Virginia named Jane Johnson took the brave steps to become a free woman. While traveling with her master Colonel John Wheeler and her two sons to Philadelphia, Johnson had already set her escape plans in motion. After secretly communicating with an Underground Railroad supporter in the hotel they were staying in, Johnson’s flight to freedom was well underway. Local abolitionists and Underground Railroad leaders Passmore Williamson and William Still were subsequently notified and quickly responded. Just hours later, Williamson, Still, and five volunteers intercepted the Wheeler party to assist Johnson and her sons in their departure.
As Pennsylvania was a free state, Johnson was technically free to go. Yet, Wheeler vehemently protested the entire incident, although it was purely within the law. Through his pro-slavery perception he viewed the event entirely differently, claiming his right to be a slave owner in a free state. As well, he insisted that Williamson had abducted Johnson. As a result, he sought assistance from the Federal District Court Judge (and friend) Kintzing Kane to bring Johnson back. After testifying under oath that he did know where she was located, Kane sentenced Passmore Williamson to prison for contempt of court (Williamson had honestly denied that he did not know of Johnson’s whereabouts). Wheeler argued that Johnson was led away against her will. Kane, taking a pro-slavery stance on the matter, sided with Wheeler.
Williamson’s subsequent imprisonment caused waves beyond the city of Philadelphia. Pro-slavery enthusiasts sided with Wheeler and Kane, arguing that slave owners had the inherent right to maintain ownership of their slaves wherever they might be traveling; including in the free states. Judge Kane and the supporting media such as the anti-abolitionist newspaper The Pennsylvanian ignored Johnson’s testimony that she had chosen to become a free woman. On the other side, Williamson and Johnson were supported in such newspapers as The New York Tribune and the National Anti-Slavery Standard. Indeed, even Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman made special visits to the incarcerated Williamson to lobby for her case.
The story of Jane Johnson is just one of many tales of freedom for ex-slaves. In 1855, the timing was ripe for a media event on the issue of slavery and abolitionism. From our present day perspective, Jane Johnson’s story is especially intriguing because genealogists are now speculating that she might have been the same person as Hannah Crafts, a female African American writer (and perhaps the first female slave writer) from the same time period. The Bondswoman’s Narrative, published in 2002, is taken from Hannah Crafts’ 19th century writings.
The mystery and sensation surrounding the identity of Jane Johnson is the subject of an exhibit presented by the Library Company of Philadelphia. This online exhibit, entitled, “One Book, One Philadelphia: The Story Behind The Price of a Child: The Liberation of Jane Johnson” can be viewed on the Library Company’s web site at: www.librarycompany.org/JaneJohnson