In the Shadow of the Civil War: Passmore Williamson and the Rescue of Jane Johnson

By Nat Brandt with Yanna Kroyt Brandt
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2010, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from the book In the Shadow of the Civil War: Passmore Williamson and the Rescue of Jane Johnson and appears here through the courtesy of the authors.

It was “very warm,” William Still thought, “intensely hot” in fact for a mid-July day in Philadelphia. Still was wearing a top hat as a shield against the blazing late-afternoon sun, but otherwise he had chosen to don the jacket of the suit he wore to work. It couldn’t have been comfortable in the heat, for Still was striding quickly down Fifth Street, an urgent note in his hand. A “colored boy” he had never seen before had handed him the note at the office of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.

William Still

Still was the society’s clerk, a title that belied his critical duties. He was entrusted with running the storefront operation at the society’s headquarters at 31 North Fifth, where he distributed abolitionist literature and sold books, tracts, and subscriptions to newspapers dedicated to the abolitionist cause. But more importantly, he was the society’s “receiving agent.” He kept in touch by mail with abolitionists in other northern states as well as with sympathizers in the South, becoming widely known in abolition circles as a go-between, forwarder of information, and arranger of escapes. A journalist would describe him as “somewhat tall, neat in figure and person” with, as the journalist added, “a smiling face.”

It is doubtful that Still was smiling that day. The note he was carrying demanded immediate attention. Still served as secretary of the society’s General Vigilance Committee. One of its functions-a controversial one that brought it into direct conflict with the federal government-was to inform slaves brought by their owners into Pennsylvania, a free state, that they were entitled to their freedom “without another moment’s service.” The committee would assist them and even provide “counsel without charge” if’ requested.

Passmore Williamson

Significantly, Still was also chairman of the Vigilance Committee’s special Acting Committee. It was responsible not only for telling a slave about his or her opportunity for freedom, but also for providing food, shelter, and transportation north on what was known as the Underground Railroad. The so-called railroad was a conglomeration of literally dozens of undefined “routes”-trails, roads, rivers north, even coastal waterways-leading to states as far-flung as those in New England and to communities such as Toronto, Kingston, and Port Stanley in Canada, as well. The railroad’s participants developed their own set of signals. “The wind blows from the South today” alerted sympathizers to the presence of fugitive slaves in a particular area. Its “conductors,” “ticket agents,” and “station masters” – blacks and whites – numbered in the thousands. A total of 348 “conductors” were said to handle “passengers” throughout Pennsylvania, and as many as nine thousand “passengers” would pass through Philadelphia alone in the years between 1830 and 1860. No complete roster of names exists of those who risked imprisonment to help escaped slaves, and only a few of them-such as Levi Coffin in Cincinnati, Dr. John Rankin in Ripley, Ohio, Thomas Garrett in Wilmington, Delaware, Isaac Hopper in Philadelphia – ever became known publicly. “There was no regular organization, no constitution, no officers, no laws or agreement or rule except the ‘Golden Rule,'” said “stationmaster” Isaac Beck, “and every man did what seemed right in his own eyes.” Which, of course, was strictly forbidden by the Fugitive Slave Law. For that matter, any assistance whatsoever was forbidden.

The law was one of a crazy quilt of measures that made up the Compromise of 1850. It was an attempt in Congress to keep the continuing dispute between slave states and free states from boiling over. And compromise it was, seesawing between the demands of the North and the South and, as it would turn out, satisfying neither. One bill permitted the admission of California as a free state. That pleased northerners. Another bill, establishing the territories of New Mexico and Utah, left it to the settlers to determine whether they wanted slavery when the territories became states. The measure, embodying a formula known as popular sovereignty, was for the benefit of southerners. Yet another bill outlawed slave trading in the District of Columbia-a source of profound embarrassment to northerners-but it did not make it illegal to own slaves in the nation’s capital. Provisions of these laws, whatever their intention, did little to soothe either the fifteen states that permitted slavery or the sixteen states, including newly admitted California, where slavery was illegal.

The Compromise of 1850 was just one more in a series of repeated attempts to resolve the question of slavery, a problem that harked back to the founding of the nation itself. The word “slavery” was never mentioned in the United States Constitution, hammered out in Philadelphia’s State House in 1787, but it was the great unspoken word in it. It was clear what was meant by Clause 3, Section 2, Article IV, an acknowledgment that the “peculiar institution” did exist, that it was tolerated, that it would not be abolished: “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” And it was clear that Clause 3, Section 2, Article I of the Constitution also spoke tacitly of slavery. It read that in the apportionment of representatives to Congress based on population, free individuals but only “three fifths of all other Persons”-meaning, of course, slaves-would be counted as part of a state’s entire population. In addition, in order to fortify the constitutional provision regarding the return of escaped slaves, Congress in 1793 passed legislation spelling out what a slave owner could do to get back a slave. This law clearly recognized slaves as property chattel that could be bought and sold.

In 1797 yet a second law dealing with the recovery of fugitive slaves was fueled in great part by fears of the impact of two major events: the French Revolution, when a subjected populace rose up in bloody revolt against authority, and a successful and bloody slave uprising in Haiti. This second law specified that runaways were not entitled to a legal defense or jury trial. The only restriction on the slave trade was the prohibition against the importation of slaves after 1808. Nothing, however, was done to stem the practice of slavery within the nation, nor the trade in slaves between states. Virginia and Maryland, in particular, became breeding grounds for black men, women, and children who were subsequently sold and shipped to slave owners south and west, to Alabama, the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas. The District of Columbia, the nation’s capital itself, became the center of the domestic traffic, its slave pens flourishing, until 1850, when the trading in human lives there was outlawed. By then, there were well over three million blacks enslaved in the South, most of them treated inhumanly, without any of the “unalienable Rights” or any chance whatsoever for the “Pursuit of Happiness” promised in the Declaration of Independence.

In the North, beginning almost as soon as independence from England was declared, one state after another, Pennsylvania included, legislated against slavery, either abolishing the practice outright or, as in Pennsylvania’s case in 1780, establishing a gradual emancipation program. In the South, however, the need for cheap labor to work the cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco plantations buttressed the institution, and as the new nation expanded westward the issue often grew divisive. So it seemed inevitable that in the first half of the nineteenth century the nation would be tom by battles over the admission of new states to the Union-should they be free or slave? Sectionalism grew more divisive each passing year. Divisions within political parties were reflected in the nation’s major religious denominations as well; disputes over slavery and theology divided Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians into separate branches, North and South.

Every attempt to resolve the issue seemed doomed. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 drew a territorial line across the continent, barring slavery north of it and including the territories of the Louisiana Purchase from the expansion of slavery. But the issue arose again in 1846 when war with Mexico broke out. Abolitionists interpreted the war as an effort by the South to extend slavery into America’s southern neighbor. In fact, many southern politicians favored the annexation of all of Mexico as slave territory. The southerners’ advocacy of annexation proved ineffective, but they were able to stymie the so-called Wilmot Proviso, an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have prohibited slavery in any territory that the United States acquired as a result of the war. For their part, anti-slavery speakers fulminated against the war, exploiting the conflict as a freedom-or-bondage issue. John Greenleaf Whittier declared that the plaza “of every conquered Mexican village” was becoming “a market-place for human flesh,” while fellow poet James Russell Lowell condemned the war as a “national crime committed in behoof [sic] of Slavery, our common sin.”

The Compromise of 1850 did little to smooth over the growing division in the nation. And of all its provisions, the Fugitive Slave Law was the most controversial. In actual practice, it incensed both sides-the North when it was enforced, the South when it was ignored. The law was intended to appease southerners who pressured for more stringent legislation to prevent what had become a continual flight of slaves to states in the North. The runaways were not only costly, but their escapes dramatically mocked southern claims of a paternal system of contented slaves unconcerned with freedom. From the time of the law’s enactment in the fall of 1850, its provisions only intensified the animosity of abolitionists to slavery and, portending perhaps the final bloody conflict in the years ahead, swayed other northerners who had remained indifferent about the issue to finally take a stand. To them, it was a repugnant law with horrific consequences.

Under the Fugitive Slave Law, federal circuit courts were authorized to appoint commissioners to adjudge the claims of slave owners and grant certificates for the removal of a runaway to the state from which he or she had escaped. However, the kidnapping of free blacks was commonplace at the time; there were gangs that scoured northern states, snaring and carting off free men and women when they could catch them unawares. At one point, for example, a number of young black men, some of an estimated twenty youths aged eight to fifteen who disappeared one year from Philadelphia, were believed to have drowned in the Delaware River. But rumors spread in the black community that they had been kidnapped by bounty hunters. Actually, the Fugitive Slave Law never legalized such abductions, but it eliminated whatever legal recourse a kidnapped slave enjoyed. Even without a warrant, the owner of an alleged slave, or his agent, could seize any person they claimed was a slave and take the individual immediately before a federal judge or one of the commissioners. The alleged slave was denied the benefit of a trial or even the chance to testify in his or her own behalf.

The commissioners, by the way, received ten dollars for every slave they ordered remanded to his or her owner, but only five dollars for every person they decided to free. While it is impossible to determine how much the difference in compensation influenced their decisions, within fifteen months of the law’s taking effect, judges and commissioners sent eighty-four alleged runaways back south, while releasing only five. In the ten years between 1850 and 1860, the judges and commissioners released only eleven alleged fugitives; they remanded south a total of 332 blacks.

Another provision of the law gave a slave owner the right to enlist a federal marshal or his deputies to capture an alleged runaway, and if they refused or were derelict in carrying out a warrant, each faced a fine of one thousand dollars, a substantial amount then. Each also faced a thousand-dollar penalty if a fugitive in their custody somehow got away.

What particularly infuriated northerners was the provision in the law that the commissioners appointed to adjudge the claims of slave owners had the power to call upon any citizen for help in capturing a runaway. It didn’t matter what that citizen thought about the institution of slavery, whether he or she condoned it or opposed it. He, or she, could be ordered to participate in a fugitive’s capture. Failure to do so could result in a fine as high as one thousand dollars and imprisonment for up to six months. By its enactment, the Fugitive Slave Law made slavery a national commitment, forcing northerners to be actively complicit and supportive of the system. It mocked southern idealizations by making it clear that southerners considered slaves in monetary terms rather than as human beings. It was a law that almost begged to be disobeyed. Perhaps no legislation enacted by Congress in the nineteenth century stirred up such heated passion as the Fugitive Slave Law. It was a law based solely on property rights-the rights of the slave owner. It totally disregarded human rights, and its passage spurred a revival of abolitionists’ commitment to aiding runaways.

Following the Compromise of 1850 there was another controversial congressional effort to soothe tempers, though it, too, proved futile: the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. It nullified the provisions of the Missouri Compromise and substituted in its stead popular sovereignty, the idea that the citizens of a territory could choose for themselves what kind of state it would become, slave or free, when admitted to the Union. The act divided Kansas from Nebraska with the expectation that its citizens would vote Kansas to be a slave state. Warring factions would turn it into “Bloody Kansas.”

It was a time of trouble, and adding to the turmoil was a human element that had been festering for years, attracting increasing attention, adding fuel to the controversy over the issue of the extension of slavery: tragic incidents and stories of brutality told by former slaves or the fate of free blacks such as Solomon Northup who were shanghaied into slavery. Abolitionists were outraged.

Pennsylvania sat on the Mason-Dixon Line, which symbolically came to divide North from South, and Philadelphia was within a few days’ walk from Maryland, a slave state. Hundreds of runaways, the majority of them from the Chesapeake area, passed through the city each year, attracted to it by Pennsylvania’s policy on emancipation. Some even settled in the city. The fugitives often were barefoot, in rags, hungry. They had been passed along from farmplace to farmplace, from village to village, mostly at night, assisted chiefly by other blacks, who were the prime “conductors” of the Underground Railroad. They were active aiders and abettors, spiriting runaways through and out of Philadelphia, though their actions drew little public notice at the time and sparse credit historically for more than a century. In one black neighborhood alone in Philadelphia, all the residents along Paschall’s Alley, just south of Coates Street in the Northern Liberties section of the city, were known to open their doors to runaways. The escaped slaves came bearing stories of whippings, of being shackled, forced to work from dawn to dusk. Light-skinned children were mute testimony to the rape of black women. Women, men, children – they all spoke of families tom apart when a spouse was sold or a child parted from parents. They needed help.

If the fugitive was fortunate, he or she came to the attention of William Still. He was in many ways an unusual black man. For one thing, he was one of the few blacks in the city who worked intimately with white abolitionists. Most blacks, whether free men and women or escaped slaves, kept to themselves, as wary of whites as whites were of them.

Still himself was the child of former slaves, the youngest of eighteen children. His father, a Maryland slave, had earned money in his spare time and was able to purchase his freedom and move to New Jersey. Some masters permitted their slaves who had a craft or special talent to work for pay in what little free time they had, and many used the money to buy their way out of bondage. Still’s mother, however, was an escaped slave. Her first attempt to flee, with four children in tow, had ended in their capture. But on a second attempt, with only two of her youngsters, she succeeded in getting away and was able to rejoin her husband. The family changed its surname from Steel to Still to forestall further pursuit of the mother. She also changed her given name from Sidney to Charity.

By the time William was born on October 7, 1821, the growing family was living in freedom on a forty-acre farm in a secluded, far-off section of Burlington County, New Jersey, known as the Pines. The farm was outside the town of Medford, an agricultural area populated in the main by Quakers. William worked on the family farm and did odd chores for some of his Quaker neighbors.

The death of his father just before Christmas in 1842 marked a turning point in Still’s life. He left home and decided to seek his fortune elsewhere, eventually heading two years later across the Delaware River to Philadelphia, which seemed to promise a range of opportunities for a young black man. Two sisters were living there, so he would not be totally without family connections. He was twenty-two years old at the time.

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 brought great personal risk. The same year that Still began work at the Anti-Slavery Society, 1847, he married Letita George. The couple made their home on a short, alley-like street that no longer exists, Ronaldson’s Row. It was tucked between Ninth and Tenth streets below South Street in the very heart of the city’s major black community. Their home became a sanctuary for runaway slaves, a way station before being transported farther north to New York State, New England or Canada, passed along from hiding place to hiding place by the friendly “conductors” of the Underground Railroad. In the decade before the Civil War, it was reported, almost every fugitive fleeing through Philadelphia took shelter in the Stills’s “humble” home. And what had begun as a clerk’s job at the Anti-Slavery Society became a lifelong passion. Still would devote his life, first to helping runaway slaves and then, after emancipation, to helping fellow blacks to receive an education, work training and other assistance that could better their lives. A contemporary biographer who knew Still wrote that he had “seen his race bowed and broken by slavery.”

Still was involved in helping an extraordinary number of fugitives. The society’s General Vigilance Committee – which Still described as being “synonymous with the underground railroad” – would boast, for instance, that in the period alone between December 1852 and February 1857 it had helped nearly five hundred runaways to gain their freedom. Still himself noted that in a single month in 1857, sixty escaped slaves – of all ages and both sexes – were “sent northward on freedom’s journey.” “Fugitives from southern injustice are coming thick and fast,” the abolitionist weekly Provincial Freeman, published in Canada, declared in 1854. “The underground railroad never before did so large a business as it is doing now.”

The death of his father in 1842 had been a turning point for Still, propelling him out of the safety and security of the family homestead into an alien and unwelcoming world. Ten years later, an amazing coincidence spurred another turning point in Still’s life. An old, white-haired black man named Peter Friedman walked into the Anti-Slavery Society’s office. He had bought his freedom in Alabama and had traveled more than a thousand miles to Philadelphia, where he heard that “his people” lived, in hopes of earning enough money to purchase the freedom of his wife and three children, whom he had left behind. Friedman–or Freedman as his name is sometimes spelled-had been roaming the city streets, trying to locate “his people” and thought that someone in the society’s office might have a clue as to their whereabouts. Friedman began to describe the members of his family. He told how he and a brother had been left behind with a grandmother when his mother, Sidney, successfully fled from Maryland with two younger sisters. His father Levin, he knew, had died in the early 1840s. He understood that a sister Mary ran a school for black children in Philadelphia. Still could not believe what he was hearing. Friedman was describing the events experienced in his own family. He realized that Friedman was his brother, a brother he had never met. Their mother had been unable to take all her children when she had fled her master a second time. Still had been born free years later in New Jersey, but as a youth he had heard his parents talk about the boys who had been left behind. Suddenly it occurred to Still what he must do: “All over this wide and extended country thousands of mothers and children, separated by slavery, were in a similar way living without the slightest knowledge of each other’s whereabouts.” From then on, Still took it upon himself to keep a list of the fleeing slaves that came through the Anti-Slavery Society’s office, recording not only their names and where they were from, but also the stories of their escapes and whom they had left behind-husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, who might someday escape, too, and want to locate kin who had fled before them.

Still kept detailed records of the fugitive slaves who passed through the society’s office. It was a dangerous thing to do, because his notebooks were proof that he and others were helping runaway slaves. That was clearly in direct violation of the Fugitive Slave Law. Still, however, persisted, compiling the names and stories of the hundreds of escaped slaves who were ushered into the welcoming hands of the Anti-Slavery Society and sped along on the Underground Railroad to safety and freedom.

Although the message Still was carrying now did not deal with a fugitive slave, it was nevertheless another appeal for help and the reason for his haste. Reaching the comer of Arch Street, Still, the note in hand, turned, heading for the office of another member of the Acting Committee. The time was 4:30 P.M. The day, Wednesday, July 18, 1855. The member’s name was Passmore Williamson.

In the Shadow of the Civil War: Passmore Williamson and the Rescue of Jane Johnson by Nat Brandt with Yanna Kroyt Brandt

About the book: Six years before the onset of the Civil War, two courageous figures―one a free white man and one an enslaved black woman―risked personal liberty to ensure each other’s freedom in an explosive episode that captured the attention of a nation on the brink of cataclysmic change. This deeply researched account chronicles the rescue of the slave Jane Johnson by the Philadelphia Quaker and fervent abolitionist Passmore Williamson, the federal court case that followed, and Johnson’s selfless efforts to free the jailed Williamson.

Click on any of the book links on this page to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.