On Tuesday night, writers Nat and Yanna Kroyt Brandt came to Swarthmore to give a talk on their new book, In the Shadow of the Civil Work: Passmore Williamson and the Rescue of Jane Johnson. The Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore hosted the lecture.
The book is about the rescue case of Jane Johnson, a slave who escaped from her master in Philadelphia in July of 1855. She and two of her three sons (the third was separated from her and owned by a different master) escaped en route to New York City with their master, John H. Wheeler. Passmore Williamson, a white former Quaker received word of fugitive slaves in need of help from William Still, a free black abolitionist. They managed to get Johnson and her children to safety, but Passmore’s involvement led to his being arrested and imprisoned. Because Wheeler was connected to important government officials, and because influential abolitionists such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass supported Williamson, the case ended up at the forefront of tensions between northern abolitionists and southern slavery supporters.
The Brandts’ talk centered around the personalities involved in the case. As they said, one of the reasons the case had an impact in the 1800s was that human stories put a face on slavery and those around it; the same is true now. The Brandts spoke of Jane Johnson herself. According to Yanna Brandt, Jane Johnson was an extraordinary woman. “In her desire and passion to be free… she would never forget the men who helped her,” explained Brandt. Johnson, the Brandts said, even returned to Philadelphia at the risk of her own freedom to support Williamson during his court case.
The Brandts also offered insight into the other personalities in the case. The man who told Passmore about Johnson, was on the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, where he was one of few free black men who worked with white abolitionists to fight slavery. Williamson, a former Quaker, could have gotten out of jail if he had lied about some facts, but his moral code would not allow him to tell an untruth. Wheeler, Johnson’s master, had been warned that traveling through Philadelphia with slaves was risky, but he did it anyway because he was convinced that Johnson would never leave him. Judge John Kintzing Kane, who presided over Williamson’s case, was an anti-abolitionist, but two of his three sons were abolitionists, and one of then even hid slaves in Kane’s own home.
The talk culminated in Yanna Brandt’s discussion of how the story of Jane Johnson’s rescue pertains to today. It involved the issue of habeas corpus, racism, states’ rights, and civil disobedience. This story truly was one of historical significance, and much of the research was conducted in the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore and other libraries and archives in the area.