Jane Johnson's escape with the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, 1855
At 4:30 in the afternoon on Wednesday, the 25th of July, 1855, an out-of-breath boy brought the following note to William Still's Philadelphia office:
Mr. Still-SIR-: Will you come down to Bloodgood's Hotel as soon as possible-as there are three fugitive slaves here and they want liberty. Their master is here with them on his way to New York.
The boy had run, excited and scared, carrying the message about a woman named Jane Johnson, who had asked first one, then another, of the black workers at Bloodgood's to help her and her two children to escape. They'd come up from Virginia, and this short layover in Philadelphia seemed her best chance-maybe her only chance-for freedom. Even while she was asking for help, however, she agonized. Although she'd convinced her master, Col. Wheeler, to let her bring two children along, he'd insisted that she leave her third child, a baby, behind in Virginia. She suspected that he'd done it to keep her from trying to escape. She also suspected that he and his wife were planning to sell the baby while she was away.
William Still read the letter and strode the few blocks to the office of his Underground Railroad partner, Passmore Williamson. William and Passmore led the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, a group of people who stayed alert and vigilant to rescue escaping people coming through Philadelphia. At first Passmore said that he'd go through with business he'd scheduled that would take him to Harrisburg that night, but then, after William Still left, Passmore changed his mind. He sent a telegram to cancel his meeting, and ran to catch up with William. Together, the two men hurried to the hotel.
But "the three fugitives"-Jane Johnson and her two children-had already left. Their master had taken them to the ferryboat to Camden, NJ, to catch the New York train. So William and Passmore rushed to Dock Street, hoping to intercept the ferry before it pushed off.
There, on the upper deck, they saw her: a tall woman with two children, sitting next to her master, and looking nervously over the heads of the people on the boat as if she were expecting someone. The Vigilance men went up the steps. William walked straight to the woman and spoke to her directly. He didn't even know her name.
"Are you traveling?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered.
She nodded toward the man sitting next to her. In response, the master fidgeted in his seat and said something into her ear. William turned to the man. "Do they belong to you, Sir?" "Yes," he answered. "They are in my charge." While they were talking, Passmore used his eyes to beckon five African- American porters who were working on the pier to come up to the second deck of the ferryboat. It looked as if he and his partner were going to need help.
Quietly, almost so no one noticed, the porters worked their way toward the conflict. Passmore and William checked each other's eyes and nodded. Then, William Still spoke to Jane Johnson in a bold, commanding voice, almost as if he were making a speech to the entire ferryboat and the crowd of workers who were gathering to watch from the dock. "You are entitled to your freedom according to the laws of Pennsylvania, having been brought into the state by your owner. "
The master broke in: "She understands all the laws."
But William would not be stopped. "If you prefer freedom to slavery, as we suppose everybody does, you have the chance to accept it now."
"Of course, she's free to leave if she chooses," the master interrupted, "but she's visiting friends in New York." That wasn't true. They were really were going to New York to catch a boat to Nicaragua, where the master would work for the U.S. government. Jane didn't know anyone there.
"Act calmly," William Still continued, "Don't be frightened by your master-you are as much entitled to your freedom as we are, or as he is-"
"She's left other children in Virginia," the master warned, "from whom it would be hard, so hard, to separate her."
(He was referring to her baby, whom he had already made plans to sell.) Other passengers began to shout their encouragement and opinions. One man told the Vigilance men to leave them alone, because Jane and her children were the master's property. Others disagreed; they told Jane to go with Still and Williamson-go while she had a chance.
"Be determined," William continued, "and you will be protected by the law." (He meant Pennsylvania law. The United States Federal law did not protect her; in fact, U.S. law promised to return people who escaped-and even hired marshals and slave catchers to hunt them down.)
Finally Jane Johnson spoke: "I am not free," she said. "But I want my freedom. I always wanted to be free, but he holds me."
"She is free," the master yelled. "I was going to give her her freedom-"
The bell rang for the ferryboat. In a moment, it would leave. William touched Jane's arm. "Come," he said.
"Go along; go along," said someone behind her.
Then it began, first in a simple action of resistance: Jane stood. Then began the confusion. Jane's older son stood alongside her, knowing full well the audacity and danger of his mother's stand. He pulled his younger brother's hand.
Then Wheeler, the master, jumped up and tried to hold her back. The porters-whom Passmore had motioned to stand guard-held Wheeler while Jane took William Still's hand, and Passmore helped the children. The seven-year-old became so frightened that he began to cry, and another passenger had to help carry him off.
Other ferryboat passengers stood, a crowd gathered, and someone, referring to the master, hollered out, "Knock him down, knock him down!"
But the Vigilance men and the porters resisted any violence they might have felt. They resisted the violence of his ownership and the laws that made some Americans more powerful and more human than others. And despite her shouting master and crying son, despite the baby left behind in Virginia and the grief that threatened to close like a curtain over any hope of future joy, Jane walked with utter determination-off the ferry and into a carriage that took her away to freedom.