The Price of a Child:
Documents and Images from
Friends Historical Library
Concerning Redemption from Slavery
February 2003

The Jane Johnson Rescue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1855

Lorene Cary's novel, The Price of a Child, is based on an actual event, the escape from slavery by Jane Johnson in 1855, with the assistance of members of Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, led by William Still and Passmore Williamson

At left: Contemporary photograph of Passmore Williamson showing Williamson in prison in 1855, awaiting trial for his part in the rescue.

 

"the day of the court examination of Jane Wheeler [Jane Johnson] the account of which you may also see in the paper she was brought here in the morning and a carriage sent for us. Her testimony was very clear and satisfactory. We didn't drive slow coming home. Miller, an officer, Jane and self. Another carriage followed with four officers for protection all with the knowledge of the States Attorney. Miller and the slave passed quickly though our house, up Cuthbert Street to the same carriage which drove around to elude pursuit… and away they drove to Broad and Coates, where the Hallowell boys were ready to receive her with our carriage and horse and conveyed her to Millers and lest she should be pursued there, he took her that evening over to Edward's and next day they sent her to Plymouth and 7th day they ventured to take her to the Norristown Meeting where she told her story well and made a good impression. It was a hazardous step, to take her to court. George Earle was very fearful from the remarks of Vandyker and a warrant being out for her arrest that there would be a bloody strife…" (Lucretia Mott, detail of letter, below)
Letter from Lucretia Mott, the noted Quaker abolitionist and founder of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, 9th Month 4, 1855, describing Jane Johnson's (Jane Wheeler) surprise appearance in court and her escape:

"With regard to those unprovided for, I think it will be safe to send them on at any time toward the latter part of this week. Far better will it be for them in Canada this winter, where they can procure plenty of work, than it would be in Pennsylvania, where labor will be scarce and hands plenty, with the usual amount of dread and danger hanging over the heads of the Fugitive. From the place were the ten you referred to came, forty for have left within the last two weeks-16 of whom we have passed on, I trust safely." (William Still, detail of letter, below)
William Still, African-American head of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, writing to Elijah Pennypacker of Schuykill, Chester County, Pennsylvania, a fellow agent on the Underground Railroad, November 2, 1857:
The Price of a Child
Jane Johnson was far from the only person who had to make the heart-rendering decision to leave family members behind in slavery as the following documents attest:
Recollections of the Underground Railroad by Joseph Penrose, Fishertown, Bedford County, Pennsylvania, written in 1904: "I … own the farm where my grandfather lived when this work [of the Underground Railroad] was being carried on. I could show you the hiding place to day where in a lonely place in the rocks on my grandfather's farm where when but a small boy I first saw the first runaway slave. My grandfather Amos Penrose always seen to giving them their meals and at this time he had three to feed two big colored men and a woman when we went to their hiding place this colored woman grabbed me and kissed me and then commenced to cry as though her heart would break and said that she had a little boy that she left at home just my size this was my first experience and I shall never forget it and I suppose happened when I was about three years old [ca. 1849-1850]…"
"I am induced to write to thee to obtain if possible some information of a coloured man, who is said to be a slave and owned by Jeremiah B. Howard… The name of the coloured man is Richard Green and his wife, who was liberated some years ago, now lives in this neighborhood and is very anxious to hear from her husband whether he is living, and whether his freedom could be purchased by her, what sum would be necessary for her to pay for him, which I believe she wishes to do if it would not be beyond her means…. The great anxiety of the woman to hear from her husband, I fear will be the means of taking her back to Maryland, which I should regret as she is now well situated in a family who will not let her want for any needful thing, and she is also receiving good wages. If though canst give any information on the subject, thou would confer a great kindness by letting me know it as soon as convenient." John Jackson, Darby, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, attempts to recover the enslaved husband of a free woman of color. Jackson (1809-1855), a minister in the Society of Friends (Quakers), and proprietor of the Sharon Female Boarding School, also engaged in the illegal work of the Underground Railroad. Jackson is writing to fellow Quaker Edward Stabler in Sandy Springs, Maryland, 4th Month, 1839:

Sermon by John Jackson Delivered at Friends' Meeting, Solebury, Bucks County, PA., on 1st Day Morning, 7th Mo., 8th, 1849. This sermon was recorded and published by the young Edward H. Magill, later President of Swarthmore College:

"Let our religion be an every day religion. Let it consist wholly in the practice of righteousness, and then we cannot be deceived… We shall all be known by our fruits. If we love God we show it by our love to one another…"

Below: Census, African-American Population of Philadelphia, 1847. This census was conducted by the Meeting for Sufferings, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Orthodox) to determine the condition of the African-American population of Philadelphia. Among the items of information recorded for each household was the number of people who had been born into slavery. For those born into slavery, the census records how they obtained their freedom, by purchase or manumission, and the amount paid for their freedom. The following entries are typical:

In the household of Robert Brooks, one individual was "purchased by his father, sum not recollected."

In the household of Richard Demby, the husband purchased his wife and child, $250 each.

In the household of Jeremiah Murry, one individual was born a slave, but his "Freedom Procured by I.T. Hopper and Others." Isaac T. Hopper, whose portrait hangs in Parrish Hall, Swarthmore College, was an agent of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society

In the household of Anthony Minor, the father purchased three of his children for $250 each.

In the household of Silvia Copeland, three were born slaves and freed by their master, but the entry notes that "Her Husband is a slave in Richmond, Virginia."

Not surprisingly at a period when "fugitives from labor" were in danger of being captured and returned to slavery, few individuals admitted being escaped slaves. In a later entry, one Joseph Smith, was recorded as being born a slave, but the column in the census intended to show how much he had paid for his freedom is the brief notation, "took it." Another individual, Benjamin Miller, bought his freedom for $200, but it "was only by his buying himself running that he got his liberty so cheap, his master had been offered $1000 for him but refused"
Facing page:
Photograph of newly freed slave children, 1864. These images were sold to raise money for education:
Last update: February 3, 2003