Colonel John Wheeler, a North Carolina politician and ambassador to Nicaragua, had been cautioned repeatedly about traveling to Philadelphia. Headed to Central America by way of New York, Wheeler arrived in the Quaker City in July of 1855 knowing full well that the woman traveling with him as his enslaved property, Jane Johnson, as well as her sons that she insisted come along, could be emancipated at any moment. In Philadelphia, after all, slavery was illegal. Wheeler told Johnson that if anyone approached her, to lie, and say that she was a free black woman traveling with a minister.
Before the 5 p.m. ship left that day for New York, Wheeler decided to have an early dinner at Bloodgood’s Hotel next to the Walnut Street wharf. He dined away from Johnson and her sons yet kept a watchful eye on her. Johnson could feel his paranoia. Her plan had been to make an escape in New York. But a moment presented itself.
“I and my children are slaves, and we want liberty,” she reportedly said to a black restaurant worker. The man took her name and said he would arrange for two men to meet her when she arrived in New York. This conversation led to the message received by a small interracial band of abolitionists known as The Vigilance Committee, who wanted to act even faster and emancipate Johnson in Philadelphia.
The Committee soon mobilized to facilitate her escape, and in the court battles that ensued, Johnson and these brave abolitionists would risk personal liberties to defend one another’s freedom. Their efforts would galvanize anti-slavery support throughout the nation by calling attention to judicial vice, jurisdictional infighting, and the ability of the federal government to sweep away a private citizen’s civil rights without a trial.
“This is an inspiring story, one of potential, of what can be done,” says Aaron X. Smith, a professor of Africology and African American Studies at Temple University. “It reminds us hope is important. And that the truth is inconvenient sometimes, and needs to be rooted in the harsh realities of history, where necessary.”
Philadelphia had developed a charitable reputation because of its abolitionists, but even it had hosted the slave trade in the colonial era. A slave ship, Isabella, docked in Philadelphia for the first time in 1684, and the commonwealth’s patriarch, William Penn, had himself engaged in trafficking enslaved Africans.
Into the 1750s, enslaved men and women stood on auction blocks in front of the London Coffee House, a merchant’s meeting place in Philadelphia’s then-center. By 1775, anti-slavery Quakers and others had taken up the abolition effort and organized themselves into the “Society for the Protection of Free Negroes Held in Bondage.” Their actions pushed the state to pass the country’s first emancipation law in 1780.
“Pennsylvania was the first place in the history of the world to begin the end of slavery,” says Paul Finkelman, an American legal historian. He points out that under the 1780 law, a clause allowed slave owners visiting the city to keep an individual enslaved for six months. In 1847, eight years before Jane Johnson’s arrival in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania repealed the six-month clause. “That meant that now, the moment someone brought the slave into the state, that slave was free.”
The 1780 law was one of gradual emancipation, generally requiring a fixed term of indentured labor before a person in bondage became free (usually at the age of 28). According to historian Gary B. Nash in Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840, the law turned Philadelphia into “the largest urban concentration of free blacks of any place where slavery had been established in the English-speaking parts of the Western hemisphere.” It also turned the city into a destination for kidnappers who searched for fugitive and freedmen, women, and children to sell into slavery. In response to heightened hostilities, more than 100 antislavery societies arose in Pennsylvania in the 1830s.
One of these was the “Vigilant Association of Philadelphia” begun by Robert Purvis, a black abolitionist, gentleman farmer and grandson of an enslaved worker. Operating through the homes of its members, the Vigilant Committee, as it came to be known, met the immediate needs of freedom seekers, offering them food, shelter, clothes and direction. The Committee worked undercover, communicating with Underground Railroad conductors through code phrases and employing disguises and signals when moving people. It dissolved in the 1840s, largely because a sharp rise in mob violence had targeted abolitionists and their families (like Purvis’) in public and private spaces. Disagreements over how to respond to attacks had also arisen.
“There was some tension within certain segments of African American leadership,” says Julie Winch, historian of African American history and the early republic at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. “Some people left for appointments elsewhere, and others moved west, saying they had done what they could in Philadelphia.”
The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which mandated that citizens assist in tracking the enslaved who had escaped to freedom, accelerated the business of human trafficking. Within a year of the law’s passage, hunters had trapped more refugees in Pennsylvania than in any other state. The law aggravated already bitter divides between federal pro-slavery edicts and anti-slavery laws in Pennsylvania. If caught aiding an escapee, or refusing to cooperate in tracking someone, private citizens faced fines, lawsuits, and jail time. It had never been a more dangerous time for abolitionists or the formerly enslaved.
At 4:30 p.m. on July 18, 1855, a young black man rushed Jane Johnson’s plea to an office within the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society (PASS), just a block from Independence Hall, where a new group operated with a familiar, though slightly altered name: the Vigilance Committee. Abolitionist William Still received the message, which explained that in 30 minutes, a steamboat would leave the Walnut Street wharf for New York City with three freedom seekers aboard.
Raised by free black parents on a New Jersey farm, Still, 33, had found work as a clerk at PASS in 1847. Five years later, when PASS officers resurrected the Committee in the aftermath of the Fugitive Slave Law, Still led a four-man team that would directly engage and aid freedom seekers. In his 1888 book, The Underground Railroad Records, Still includes the stories of many of the 800 people The Vigilance Committee assisted between 1852 and 1861.
Still took Johnson’s message two blocks to the law office of Passmore Williamson, the only white man on his team. By the time the two reached the docks, Johnson had left the restaurant and sat on the steamboat’s upper hurricane deck with her two boys, Daniel and Isaiah, 6 and 10, respectively. Two years prior, Wheeler had purchased Johnson and her sons from an auction block. A third son had been sold to an enslaver in Richmond, Virginia. She expected to never see him again.
Just before the third bell tolled to signal the steamboat’s launch, Williamson, Still and five black dock workers rushed towards Jane Johnson. She later testified to the following exchange under oath.
“Are you traveling with someone?” William Still asked Johnson.
She nodded towards Wheeler.
“I want to speak to your servant and tell her of her rights,” Williamson said to the ambassador.
Wheeler stood. “If you have anything to say, say it to me. She knows her rights.”
Williamson asked Johnson if she wanted her freedom.
“I do but I belong to this gentleman and I can’t have it,” she answered.
“Yes, you can,” Williamson said. “You are as free as your master. If you want your freedom, come now. If you go back to Washington, you may never get it.”
A crowd had assembled on deck. Johnson’s sons started to cry.
“I am not free but I want my freedom — always wanted to be free! But he holds me,” their mother answered.
“Let them alone,” an onlooker called out. “They are his property. Would you rob a man of his property?”
“No, but I will tell a woman of her rights,” Williamson answered. He offered his hand and Johnson took it. She later said, “I was ready for the word before it was given to me.”
Wheeler grasped for Johnson and shoved Williamson. Two of the dockworkers picked up the boys and the abolitionists rushed off the boat with Wheeler following behind.
Spectators watched the group dash through the first deck and the wharf. Johnson, her boys, and William Still hastened into a carriage on Dock Street. Colonel Wheeler called a police officer nearby to make an arrest.
“I’m not a slave catcher,” the policeman said, according to Still’s book.
Two days later, after Wheeler had issued a writ of habeas corpus directing him to produce Johnson, Williamson arrived in court with his legal team, but already he faced a difficult situation: the presiding federal judge, John Kane, was a friend of Colonel Wheeler’s. Newspapers had reported on at least two previous high-profile clashes between the pro-slavery Kane and the abolitionist Williamson over the Fugitive Slave Law. Repeatedly, Kane had sent fugitives back into bondage under the Fugitive Slave Law, flouting the state law that declared such refugees were free people.
“Williamson was right in telling Johnson that Colonel Wheeler had no control over her whatsoever,” says Finkelman. “This was a completely outrageous case.”
The judge demanded to know why Williamson would not deliver the woman.
“It was impossible,” Williamson said multiple times as recorded in the Philadelphia Gazette on July 20, 1855. Still had only told his compatriot that Johnson was safe, but not her location. One week later, Kane charged Williamson with contempt and sent him to federal prison.
For more than three months, newspapers around the nation reminded antebellum America that a federal judge was unlawfully keeping Williamson, a middle-aged white man, in a Philadelphia prison.
Kane’s actions realized a fear shared by even pro-slavery Americans: the ability of the federal government to swiftly remove the civil rights of any person, regardless of skin color.
“Private citizens are not secure against arbitrary power,” said the anti-slavery New York Tribune, which covered the case in detail. Press sympathetic to the cause also featured Williamson’s story, the efforts of his legal team, and the continuous traffic of visitors to his cell (Five hundred would visit, including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Williamson’s visitors’ log holds their signatures). Philadelphia abolitionists sent an application to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, saying Kane had imprisoned Williamson unfairly. It rejected the application, saying it had no jurisdiction over a federal judge.
Judge Kane attributed Johnson’s declaration of freedom, her own agency, actions and intentions to Williamson. “Of all the parties to the act of violence, he was the only white man, the only citizen, the only individual having recognized political rights, the only persons whose social training could certainly interpret either his own duties or the rights of others under the constitution of the land,” Kane maintained. Such sentiments would be echoed in the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision two years later when Justice Robert Grier, a close friend to Kane, concurred with the determination that black people did not have protected rights under the Constitution.
Meanwhile, Wheeler had also named Williamson in a civil case when he filed charges of riot, assault and battery against Still and dock workers William Curtis, James Braddock, John Ballard, James Martin and Isaiah Moore. The defense knew that Wheeler, claiming that the group threatened to slit his throat, could very well have the sympathy of the jury; the defendants needed a defendant.
Jane Johnson emerged from hiding, jeopardizing her freedom, to appear as a surprise witness in the civil case.
Johnson had arrived at the Philadelphia courthouse behind Independence Hall late on the morning of August 29, 1855. Masked with a veil, the tall, black woman moved in the care of a police officer and four Quaker women, including famed abolitionist Lucretia Mott. The party accompanied Johnson into the crowded, stuffy courtroom after a high-pitched voice summoned her to the witness stand.
Onlookers gasped at the sight of the wanted woman, and it took presiding judge William Kelley several minutes to quiet the room. Johnson took her place behind the witness stand. Reporters noted that Colonel Wheeler’s complexion alternately flushed and paled as she spoke. Then he took his hat and left the room.
The defense attorneys knew that the name of their surprise witness would startle the court. It was harder for them to predict the events that would come next. A U.S. Marshal with a posse in tow held a warrant for Johnson’s arrest under the Fugitive Slave Law. State and local officials stood ready to protect her from federal custody.
Johnson spoke with poise about the men’s role in her escape from Wheeler. “Nobody forced me away. Nobody pulled me. Nobody led me. I went away of my own free will,” she testified. “I would rather die than go back.”
Around 1:45 p.m., Johnson’s party prepared to exit the courtroom. It was unclear if they would be stopped by the U.S. marshal. Anticipating potential trouble, the district attorney had ordered police to line the path between the courthouse and the waiting carriage. Officers pushed back the crowds that had gathered to see the freedwoman.
The marshal and his posse stayed put.
Mott climbed next to Johnson in the carriage. She wrote that it moved quickly through the streets, followed by another holding four police officers. For her protection, Johnson would change carriages two more times on her way out of Philadelphia.
Back in court, Judge Kelley charged the jury. “After consulting all the authorities that could aid me in consideration of the question,” he said, “I give you my deliberate conclusion, saying to you that, when Colonel Wheeler and his servants crossed the border of Pennsylvania, Jane Johnson and her two sons became as free as he.”
On the charge of rioting, the jury found all defendants not guilty. On the charge of assault, they found all not guilty but John Ballard and William Curtis, who each received a one-week prison sentence.
All the while, Passmore Williamson was still in jail for contempt. Editorials called for Judge Kane’s resignation into the fall. “He has, doubtless, felt keenly the scathing indignation of the community, legal as well as lay,” wrote the National Anti-Slavery Standard.
Recognizing that their actions were promoting abolitionists as heroes, Wheeler and Kane folded. On November 3, Passmore Williamson left prison for “a triumph and a fame which but few men in the great mad battle for freedom could claim,” reported the Tribune.
Johnson, whose courage took freedom for her and her sons, and whose testimony rescued seven men from false charges, settled quietly with her sons in Boston.
“In dealing with the realities of harsh, tense histories,” says Aaron X. Smith, “there are beautiful stories of how people got along. They give us examples of the best in us.”