James Collins Johnson was a fugitive slave from Maryland who came to Princeton in 1839 where he worked as a janitor until 1843 when a student recognized him as a runaway slave and disclosed it to Johnson’s owner. This is how Johnson finally became free in Princeton after a trial and went on to become a well-known person in town and on campus.
Born James Collins by slaves in Easton, Maryland, on October 2, 1816, he was given to his parents’ owner’s son, Teakle Wallace, who was only a month older than Johnson. Johnson got married to a freedwoman in 1836 but was never happy that he was still in bondage so he planned to escape. He used five dollars his owner Wallace gave him to work on something and left Easton on foot at midnight on August 8, 1839.
He told his wife that he would come back for her and continued his journey on foot to Wilmington, Delaware. There, he got on a riverboat to Philadelphia, changed his name to James Johnson, and bought a train ticket to Trenton. Then he headed to Princeton, New Jersey, where he found work as a janitor in Nassau Hall at the College of New Jersey, informally called “Princeton College”. And then a few years later, he was recognized by Simon Weeks (Class of 1838), a student at Princeton Theological Seminary and a friend of the Wallace family, according to an account by blogs.princeton.edu. Weeks wrote to the Wallaces in Maryland to inform them about it.
Johnson would come face to face with his owner some weeks later at the local post office. An 1834 trial ensued in Princeton. Even though there was the Fugitive Slave Act, there was also the New Jersey Personal Liberty Law of 1826, which paved the way for a hearing “in which a fugitive slave could speak on his or her own behalf.”
Many people in the African-American community and students threw their weight behind Johnson but the court ruled in Wallace’s favor and Johnson was held under guard in an upper room in the Nassau Hotel following the ruling. Abolitionists then started pleading with Wallace to free Johnson. Wallace agreed but only if he was paid $550 (about $13,000 today). A local white woman named Theodosia Ann Mary Prevost, who had strong ties to Princeton College, paid Wallace and he let Johnson go free, leaving Princeton without him. Johnson was no longer a slave.
“Perhaps because of their own desire to distance themselves from the alumnus who had notified Wallace of Johnson’s living in Princeton, the students of the College also took up a collection for Johnson and presented him $100 to start over in Princeton as a free man. Over the course of the next few years, records assert that Johnson repaid both Prevost and the students,” the report by blogs.princeton.edu writes.
It says that Johnson opened a used clothing store on Witherspoon Street in 1855, buying and selling student castoffs after gaining his freedom. By 1880, he had resigned from his post as a janitor for Princeton and got the rights to a monopoly on outdoor food vending on campus.
He sold nuts, apples and lemonade from a wheelbarrow that he pushed around Princeton. Johnson later got “incensed” when Princeton gave way for a white Civil War veteran to sell food on campus. He saw the veteran as a rival and when he was told that there was no need for him to get angry since the white veteran had fought for Johnson’s freedom, Johnson reportedly stated:
“I never got no free papers. Princeton College bought me; Princeton College owns me; and Princeton College has got to give me my living.”
Princeton & Slavery writes that, “Johnson’s assertion about being owned by the college may not have been literally true. But Johnson likely saw in his redemption from slavery a mutual obligation not only between himself and the individual persons who made his purchase possible, but also between himself and the college. Near the end of his life Johnson may have felt that the agreement with the college no longer held when he found himself unable to afford housing costs and food.”
Still, Johnson’s entrepreneurship opened the doors for many Black residents to start their own businesses to improve their lives. After his death in 1902, Princeton alumni, to show how much they loved him, purchased a headstone for him in Princeton Cemetery describing him as “the students’ friend”. According to blogs.princeton.edu, Princeton students saw Johnson as an institution and exchanged stories about him for about a century while adding his photo to their yearbooks.