Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Freedom's Friends #4: The Dove for Jane Johnson

Freedom's Friends: Block #4
The Dove by Denniele Bohannon

The dove recalls Jane Johnson, a freed woman who became famous in the 1850s.
Jane Williams (?) Johnson (Born about 1830–1872)

In July, 1855 William Still at the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee offices received a hand-delivered note:

Still ran to get help from fellow Committee member Passmore Williamson. One of the group's prime duties "when hearing of slaves brought to [Pennsylvania] was to immediately inform such persons that they were not fugitives...were entitled to their freedom without another moment's service [and] advice of counsel without charge."

(1806-1882) 1863 portrait

Jane Johnson was the Washington-born slave of John Hill Wheeler, a North Carolina politician living in Washington City. He had purchased her about 1853 with sons Daniel, about 10, & 9-year-old Isaiah. (Her previous owner sold another son.) The Wheelers and Johnsons had taken the train cars from Washington and spent some time with the parents of Wheeler's wife Ellen, the Thomas Sullys. 

Ellen Oldmixon Sully Wheeler (1816-1896) and her own two sons, 
painted by her father Thomas Sully

The Sully House
Library Company of Philadelphia

The Wheelers were on their way to Nicaragua where Wheeler was U.S. Minister for three years. 
While waiting for a ferry, the next step in their journey, they spent a few hours in Bloodgood's Hotel with Jane locked in a room while the Wheelers ate a meal. Jane had a plan---in her trunk was a new dress, the clothing of a free woman to wear when she got to New York where she planned to escape. But seeing an opportunity in Philadelphia, she communicated with hotel employees who knew just the people to contact.

Library Company of Philadelphia
Bloodgood's Hotel on the Delaware River

Jane was legally free in Pennsylvania despite the 1850 federal Fugitive Slave Act. William Still was one of many writers who told of her journey.
"Slave-holders fully understood the law...Consequently they avoided bringing slaves beyond Mason & Dixon's line....But some slave-holders were...too arrogant to take heed. [Wheeler] received a terrible shock at the hands of the Committee." 

Williamson second from left, Jane, her boys and probably
William Still in the top hat from Still's 1872 book The Underground Railroad.

The Pennsylvania Anti Slavery Society published Jane's tale too.

As the ferry was loading Williamson found: 
"Jane and her children seated upon the upper deck [inquiring] 'You are the person I am looking for, I presume.' Mr. Wheeler, who was sitting on the same bench, three or four feet from her, asked what Mr. Williamson wanted with him. The answer was, 'Nothing, my business is entirely with this woman.' Amid repeated interruptions from Mr. Wheeler, Mr. Williamson calmly explained to Jane that she was free under the laws of Pennsylvania, and could either go with Mr. Wheeler, or enjoy her freedom by going on shore."
There were various assaults, alleged and otherwise, with Isaiah screaming and five dockworkers guarding her exit:
"Wheeler...clasped her tightly round the body. Mr. Williamson pulled him back and held him till she was out of danger from his grasp. Jane moved steadily forward towards the stairway leading to the lower deck. It was at the head of the stairway, if we may believe Mr. Wheeler, that he was seized by two colored men and threatened by one of them; but the most careful and repeated examination of witnesses has failed to elicit any testimony to a threat except one made on the lower deck. She was led down the stairs of the boat and her children picked up and carried after her; one of them cried vociferously. She and her children were conducted ashore, and put into a carriage, and, amid the huzzas of the spectators, were driven off to a place of safety."
Some accounts say that place of safety was Letitia and William Still's boarding house. Abigail Goodwin, a New Jersey "agent" worried about Jane.
 "You will take good care of Jane Johnson I hope, and not let her get kidnapped back to Slavery. Is it safe for her to remain in your try to impress her with the necessity of being very cautious and careful against deceivers, pretended friends. She had better be off to Canada pretty soon."
With his political clout Wheeler soon had Passmore Williamson arrested. He was held in jail for 100 days for contempt because he refused to tell the court the Johnsons' hiding place.

Passmore Williamson (1822-1895) in jail
Chester County Historical Society

Williamson said he didn't know and he was probably truthful as the Vigilance Committee operated on a "need to know" basis. His imprisonment and trial became a useful tool in abolitionist public relations.

Not everyone in Philadelphia was sympathetic to the antislavery cause. An 1855 cartoon showing "The Follies of Philadelphia" includes Williamson telling Jane Johnson: "While I engage your Master in conversation you will have a fine chance to escape." Jane did not really "escape." She walked away, exercising her rights.

Jane took her boys first to New York and then to Boston but she bravely returned for her rescuers' trial, which resulted in acquittal or reduced sentences for William Still and his accomplices.

 The Block

A simple dove from an 1858 album recorded by the Connecticut project.

The slide has shifted color over the past 30 years
so I've color corrected it but it is not this red.

The Dove by Barbara Brackman

The pattern measures 8" and will fit into the center area of the block with space around it for more applique or your name, the date, a sentiment etc.

 An inked inscription (drawing better than the poem!)

Nadal Quilt/Smithsonian/1847

We find many doves in mid-century applique from Baltimore to Connecticut and parts South.

Baltimore/Jeffrey Evans Auction
There are two pattern sheets. Print each out 8-1/2" x 11". See the inch square for scale.

Now the model makers thought my pattern (designed to fit the paper) was a bit sparse. 

The Dove by Georgann Eglinski
But we encourage addition....

Denniele solved the space problem with a ring of fussy cut dots. Georgann says she is stealing this idea and you can too.

Jeanne Arnieri added a few leaves to her small scale block.

Becky Brown moved the image from the diagonal and added more

And then there is Robyn Gragg!

Georgann, many dots

Further Reading

Jane's story has been told often. See a summary at the Library Company of Philadelphia's webpage:

The P.A.S.S. published an account of the Williamson case in 1855 with Jane's testimony beginning on page 14.
Several novelists have used the tale, among them Lorene Cary in The Price of a Child.

Here's our Facebook group: Freedom'sFriendsQuiltBOM. It's public so you can join or not.

If you'd like to buy all the patterns now for $12 in a PDF to print yourself here's a link to my Etsy shop:

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