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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: July 11, 2002
Byline: Jane Eisner

How to tell Phila. slavery story

The story of slavery in Philadelphia will be told. That much seems certain.

Now that a House committee voted Tuesday to "appropriately commemorate" the eight slaves who toiled in President Washington's official residence near Independence Hall, the National Park Service is sure to comply.

This uncomfortable paradox of history - that, just steps away from the birthplace of freedom, the father of freedom owned other human beings - can no longer be brushed aside.

But as historians argue over how to tell the story of Washington's slaves, it's worth remembering another occasion on which controversy over slavery made headlines and jarred sensibilities in this Northern city. What happened a century and a half ago may have a telling message for today.

For about a month in 1855, John Hill Wheeler became perhaps the most famous slaveholder in the United States, all because of an escaped slave and a notorious trial in Philadelphia.

I read of Wheeler in the fascinating introduction written by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates to The Bondwoman's Narrative by Hannah Crafts. Gates purchased the narrative at auction and vigorously authenticated that it was, indeed, written by an escaped slave just before the Civil War. He concluded that the "Mr. Wheeler" in the narrative was John Hill Wheeler of Washington and North Carolina, a federal bureaucrat and plantation owner who was a staunch - and, in the end, foolhardy - defender of the entire system of slavery.

Wheeler, it turns out, was no match for Jane Johnson, the slave who accompanied him when he sailed into Philadelphia on July 18, 1855. Johnson, traveling with her two sons, had wanted to escape and sent a message to William Still, a free black man who ran the Underground Railroad. Still and Passmore Williamson, a white abolitionist, met Johnson and her sons on the boat and implored her to leave with them.

"If you prefer freedom to slavery, as we suppose everybody does," Still told her, "you have the chance to accept it now. Act calmly - don't be frightened by your master - you are as much entitled to your freedom as we are, or as he is."

Wheeler was the one who was frightened - and furious. When he tried to stop Johnson's escape, a minor scuffle ensued, and Williamson put his hands on Wheeler. That was enough to get them all charged with riot, forcible abduction, and assault.

Not only that, but Wheeler also filed a civil and a criminal complaint against the men who, he contended, violated the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act by "stealing" Johnson, his "property." The trial was a cause célèbre - especially when Jane Johnson made a daring appearance in court. In the end, Johnson stayed free, and Still was acquitted, though Williamson spent a much-publicized three months in jail.

Perhaps most important, Wheeler failed spectacularly in his claim that, even in Philadelphia, the slaves were his property. "The trial forced Northerners to address the troublesome issue of slavery brought onto Northern territories," says local historian William C. Kashatus.

It may also change the way we tell the Philadelphia story of slavery. It's not only a tale of victimization and indignity. It's also a tale of courageous human beings - slave and free - taking history into their own hands.

Years before Washington and his slaves came to live on Market Street, Benjamin Franklin carried a petition to the Continental Congress to abolish slavery. The antislavery society he helped establish in 1775 - the same one Passmore Williamson later belonged to - still is in existence today.

In fact, two of the eight slaves owned by Washington made daring escapes before their owner returned to Virginia.

David Moltke-Hansen, president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, says scholars have come a long way from viewing slaves merely as infantilized victims, stripped of personality and humanity. "There's a good deal of discussion now about how slaves negotiated space for themselves, asserted themselves," he says. "But the popular imagination hasn't caught up with that."

Now is our chance.

 

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