Historical Markers
Jane Johnson Historical Marker
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Jane Johnson

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Penn's Landing, near Walnut St. pedestrian walkway

Dedication Date:
July 18, 2009

Behind the Marker

Head shot.
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Engraving of Jane Johnson, published in William Still's The Underground Railroad,...
Although her name and story are little known today, in the turbulent decade of the 1850s, Jane Johnson's plight was synonymous with the freedom struggle against slavery. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman knew her name, as did leading jurists and social activists from Boston to Washington, D.C.

In 1855, Johnson's ordeal captured the attention of a nation teetering toward disunion and Civil War. For Philadelphians, the Johnson case was a cause that revealed deep divisions over slavery and race relations in the City of Brotherly Love. Even as the episode exposed the uneven scales of justice, it brought into public view a clandestine network of anti-slavery activism associated with the Underground Railroad.

It all began when Colonel John H. Wheeler, the newly appointed U.S. Minister to Nicaragua, arrived in Philadelphia on July 18, 1855, with plans to travel on to New York City and then by ship to Central America. A prominent North Carolina slaveholder, Wheeler was accompanied by members of his family and three of his slaves: Jane Johnson and her two sons.

Half-length portrait, three-quarters to left
U.S. Minister to Nicaragua, Hon. John H. Wheeler, by Mathew Brady, circa 1855....
Unbeknownst to Wheeler, Johnson intended to secure her freedom once she reached a free state. When she informed two hotel staff of her desire to be free, they immediately sent word to markerWilliam Still, a prominent African-American businessman and abolitionist, who rallied other anti-slavery activists to interrupt Johnson's departure for New York and then Nicaragua. This ignited one of the most controversial episodes in Philadelphia judicial history.

Ever since the passage of marker Pennsylvania's gradual abolition statute in 1780, Philadelphia had been a mecca for free blacks in America. Throughout the early 1800s, a steady stream of black migrants hoping to escape southern slavery fled into the Pennsylvania counties just north of the Maryland border. Aided by "conductors" on the Underground Railroad, an informal but very effective network of anti-slavery activists, many runaway slaves settled in the Commonwealth even as others pushed northward into New York and on to Canada.

This became significantly more difficult, however, after passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, which compelled northern citizens to assist in the apprehension and return of fugitive slaves back to their southern masters, and threatened those who assisted runaways with prosecution and imprisonment. Some Pennsylvanians, however, refused to follow the new law.
In the office of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, the young Brown emerges from a crate as several figures, including Frederick Douglass (holding a claw hammer at left) look on.
“The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia,” broadside,...

In marker Christiana, Pennsylvania, in 1851, William Parker and a group of black and white townsfolk resisted the return of four fugitive slaves to their nominal owner, Edward Gorsuch, who was killed in a violent confrontation. In Kentucky, Missouri, and elsewhere along the border of slavery and freedom, bitter disagreement over the new law sparked a new round of pro- and anti-slavery violence, and controversial court trials across America.

When Jane Johnson arrived there in the summer of 1855, Philadelphia had the largest free black population in the country. Prominent blacks, including William Still and Robert Purvis, were active members and officers in the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and worked with markerLucretia Mott, Passmore Williamson, and other white abolitionists in the struggle against slavery. This network was put at Jane Johnson's disposal when she made her intention to remain behind known to Wheeler and local officials.
Daguerreotype of a man with mutton chop whiskers, bow tie. Jail door in background.
Passmore Williamson in Moyamensing Prison, by John Steck, Philadelphia, PA,...

When white abolitionist Passmore Williamson refused to surrender Johnson and her sons on a writ of habeas corpus, Judge John K. Kane cited him for contempt and banished him to Moyamensing Prison. Prosecutors then tried several other abolitionists, including William Still, who had masterminded the rescue, for kidnapping and riot.

In the Still trial, Jane Johnson made a sensational appearance in court to testify that she had not been abducted by the abolitionists. To the outrage of those who supported slavery and respect of the law, the Philadelphia jury found Still not guilty. Soon afterwards, Johnson again went underground, this time aided by Lucretia Mott, and successfully fled to New York. After more than three months in prison, Williamson, who had become something of a national hero in the anti-slavery cause, was released by Judge Kane.
Front page of William Still’s The Underground Railroad, Philadelphia: Porter...

Although Jane Johnson was not technically a runaway slave, her refusal to accompany Wheeler to New York and then to Nicaragua reignited the simmering controversy over the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Like the Christiana conspiracy trials, the prosecution of those accused of aiding Jane Johnson and her sons highlighted to deep national rift over slavery.

Two years later, the United States Supreme Court would affirm the primacy of property rights over human rights with the dictum "once a slave always a slave" in its infamous Dred Scott decision and move the nation another large step closer to civil war.

After a brief residence in New York, Jane Johnson moved to Boston, where she married and lived as a free woman of color until her death in 1872 at the age of fifty-nine. That same year, William Still published his now classic The Underground Railroad, retelling the Johnson incident marker in vivid detail.

Knowledge of Jane Johnson's heroic flight then languished for more than a century, only to be unearthed in fictional form with the publication of Lorene Cary's novel, The Price of a Child in 1995. In 2002, the city of Philadelphia selected The Price of a Child as the first novel for its annual ONE BOOK, ONE PHILADELPHIA reading project.
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