Today’s blog post comes from National Archives social media intern Anna Fitzpatrick.
Before the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, many men and women in bondage ran away from their owners to freedom. These escape attempts were dangerous, and not all of them were successful. Abolitionists sometimes helped slaves in their flight to freedom, like these two men in the case of the escaping slave Jane Johnson and her children.
Jane Johnson and her two young sons were enslaved by John Hill Wheeler, the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua. While on his way to South America, Wheeler brought Jane and her sons to New York and Philadelphia. Once the three slaves were in Philadelphia, abolitionists William Still and Passmore Williamson helped Johnson and her two sons escape to Boston.
Wheeler petitioned the court to have Williamson return his slaves. In the Writ of Habeas Corpus commanding Williamson to return Jane and her sons, Williamson stated that he was unable to do so:
Passmore Williamson the defendant in the within writ mentioned for return thereto respectfully submits that the within named Jane, Daniel and Isaiah . . . are not now nor was, . . . in the custody, power or possession of, nor confined nor restrained their liberty by him the said Passmore Williamson. Therefore he cannot have the bodies of the said Jane, Daniel and Isaiah, or either of them, before your Honor, as by the within writ he is commanded.
When Williamson refused to reveal the whereabouts of Johnson and her sons, he was jailed for contempt of court.
The case became both an international and national cause célèbre of the abolitionist movement. Williamson spent over 3 months in jail and was freed from prison on November 3, 1855.
In one of the more dramatic moments of the trial, Jane Johnson—at great personal risk—returned to Philadelphia from Boston to testify on behalf of the men who had helped her escape from slavery. She and her sons remained free.
William Still, a free black man of Philadelphia, continued to direct former slaves to freedom. After the war, he published his secret notes in The Underground Railroad.
The story of Jane Johnson and the abolitionists who helped her is featured in The Meaning and Making of Emancipation, an eBook created by the National Archives as part of the 150th anniversary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation. (The free eBook will be available for multiple devices later this month.)
The National Archives will also commemorate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation with a special display of the original document at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, from Sunday, December 30, to Tuesday, January 1. The commemoration will include extended viewing hours, inspirational music, a dramatic reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, and family activities and entertainment for all ages.