Jane Johnson (slave)

African-American slave who gained freedom / From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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Jane Johnson (c. 1814-1827 ā€“ August 2, 1872)[1] was an African-American slave who gained freedom on July 18, 1855, with her two young sons while in Philadelphia with her master and his family. She was aided by William Still and Passmore Williamson, abolitionists of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and its Vigilance Committee.

Engraving of Jane Johnson, from The Underground Railroad, by William Still, 1872.

This resulted in precedent-setting legal cases in 19th-century Pennsylvania, as a federal judge applied the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in a controversial way. He sentenced abolitionist Passmore Williamson to 90 days for contempt of court for failing to produce Johnson and her sons under a writ of habeas corpus, or tell their location. The jailing attracted even wider publicity, and widespread discussion of issues of state and federal laws related to slavery. Pennsylvania had long been a free state and held that slaveholders gave up their property right in slaves if they brought them voluntarily to the state.

Johnson returned to Philadelphia from New York in August 1855 and testified in the trial of William Still and five dockworkers, charged by her master John Hill Wheeler with assault. They had aided her escape. She testified at length about having planned to gain freedom in the North, and said she chose of her own free will to leave with Still, and would never go back to slavery. She helped win acquittal for Still and three men, and reduced sentences for two others. State and local officials protected her after testimony, and she and her sons soon moved to Boston, where they settled. She married again there. Her son Isaiah Johnson served in the United States Colored Troops during the American Civil War.