Once a slave, James Collins Johnson became an entrepreneur — and ‘the students’ friend’

James Collins Johnson, left, and an unidentified young man at work on campus, circa 1890.
Princeton University Archives

On July 28, 1843, disaster struck James Collins Johnson, a black servant at the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University: He was arrested on suspicion of being a fugitive slave.

Johnson had worked as a janitor at Nassau Hall, then a dormitory as well as a classroom building, without incident since 1839, when he fled slavery in Maryland. His arrest took place after a student recognized Johnson and alerted his owners, who came to Princeton and had him detained for trial as a runaway slave. Tried under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, Johnson was found to be a fugitive and slated for return to slavery.

But the story of Johnson — born 200 years ago this month — had a happier ending: He was redeemed from slavery by a local white woman, Theodosia Ann Mary Prevost, who had strong ties to the College. Johnson would spend the next several years repaying the funds advanced for his purchase, becoming beloved by students during his six-decade career on campus. After his death in 1902, Johnson was buried in Princeton Cemetery, only a few feet away from some of the country’s most prominent citizens. Alumni and students took up a collection for his burial and erected a gravestone; the epitaph pays tribute to Johnson as “the students’ friend.”

I learned the broad contours of Johnson’s story during my freshman year, in 1979. As a little-traveled Southern Californian who chose Princeton sight unseen, I was eager to learn anything I could about the history of Princeton — both the town and the University. I became aware, for example, that there was a long-present black community in the town and that many of these residents were descendants of people who had lived in Princeton and worked at the College since the 18th and 19th centuries. I also learned that some enslaved people had lived on the campus with their faculty or staff owners. Until she reached her early 20s, for example, Betsey Stockton, known as the first unmarried woman to travel abroad as a missionary and the leader of Princeton’s earliest efforts to educate black children, lived on campus as a slave of Ashbel Green 1783, the president of Princeton from 1812 to 1822. I learned that during most of the history of the College, several free (or ostensibly free) workers, both black and white, served students on campus. Johnson’s story, however, stood out.

In its time, the story of James Collins Johnson was known as the “Princeton Fugitive Slave Case,” and it captured local and national attention. In most accounts, Johnson’s trial is presented as the high point in the life of an amusing, relatively minor figure about whom little else was known. A few years ago I began researching and writing a book to fill in the contours of Johnson’s story.

Johnson was born enslaved Oct. 2, 1816, in Maryland, and named James Collins (he took the name Johnson when he arrived in Princeton). Nothing is known definitively about his parents, though a possible clue comes from the 1900 decennial census, which reports that Johnson’s parents were born in Africa. (Johnson was approaching his mid-80s at the time of the census, and it’s not clear whether he provided this information himself.) At his birth, Johnson was one of many slaves in the household of Philip Wallis, who was descended from one of the wealthiest families in Maryland, with roots in the state’s early Colonial history. According to some accounts, Wallis’ oldest son, Severn Teackle Wallis, received James Collins — who was a few weeks younger — as a “gift” when both were children. The younger Wallis went on to become a noted lawyer (he helped to prosecute his own fugitive slave case against Johnson), ambassador to Spain, state legislator, and provost of the University of Maryland. The two men apparently were constant companions in their youth. As they grew up, Johnson served Wallis as a man of all work; he performed many tasks that his master required.

According to accounts he shared, Johnson escaped Maryland in August 1839 when his master gave him $5 and sent him on an errand. Instead of completing the errand, Johnson fled, and over the course of the next few days he walked from Easton, Md., to Wilmington, Del., where he boarded a steamboat for Philadelphia. From Philadelphia, Johnson took a train to Trenton and then another to Princeton — getting off there because, Johnson would claim, his money ran out and he could travel no farther.

While it is possible that Johnson’s flight from Maryland and his arrival in Princeton were the products of whim and happenstance, it seems improbable that so important and potentially perilous an undertaking could have been executed without significant planning and knowledge of an escape route. Johnson was one of thousands of enslaved people in Maryland who, over several decades before the Civil War, fled to freedom in the North. Some fugitives obtained help from groups that dedicated themselves to aiding slave escapes, with some adopting the well-known name “Underground Railroad” in reference to the literal railroads that were beginning to cross the country.

Enslaved Marylanders who used the Underground Railroad often escaped via a course that led through Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. The town of Princeton was a known “station” along this route. In an 1895 Maryland newspaper article chronicling what was said to be Johnson’s first visit to the state since his 1839 escape, Johnson seemed to indicate that he had help in escaping, but refused to divulge details.

Sometime after arriving in Princeton and obtaining work at the College in 1839, Johnson apparently was able to bring his wife, Phillis, and his son, Thomas, to Princeton. Phillis was a free woman who lived about a dozen miles away from the plantation where Johnson had lived. Because she was free, she likely faced far fewer travel restrictions than Johnson had. Her son, whose status likely would have been the same as his mother’s, also would have been able to travel relatively freely. (Records suggest that Thomas was born in 1843 in Maryland, but errors were common and that information may not be reliable.)

Johnson’s first few years in Princeton were difficult. As a janitor at the College, Johnson worked under harsh conditions. Among his duties were cleaning students’ rooms, bringing fresh water, stoking fires, and emptying latrine buckets. The latter duty was particularly distasteful. During these early pre-plumbing days, the campus featured wooden outhouses that were often dirty, smelly, and prone to student vandalism. Students apparently sometimes failed to use the outhouses at all, prompting College officials to insert into an early set of rules a proviso (in Latin, likely to protect delicate sensibilities) against urinating on College walls or other improper disposal of waste. From this unpleasant work Johnson is said to have obtained the nickname “Jim Stink” or “James Odoriferous” not long after his arrival. Despite hardship, his first few years were relatively without incident until the summer of 1843.

Many accounts identify John Henry Thomas, Class of 1844, as the person who exposed Johnson as a fugitive slave. However, there is also evidence suggesting that Joseph Augustus Wickes 1845 was the culprit. Both students were from Maryland. Though Thomas hailed from southern Maryland and Wickes from the Eastern Shore, the two men apparently were acquainted, since for at least some of their years as students in Princeton they took meals together at the same house in town. There also is evidence that Thomas had a professional and personal relationship with the Wallis family — the family that owned Johnson. (It is not clear, however, whether that relationship was formed before or after Johnson’s apprehension.) Wickes was distantly related to the Wallis family and frequented areas where the Wallises resided. Given Johnson’s constant presence at the side of Severn Teackle Wallis, Wickes might have recognized Johnson from Maryland.

Johnson, pictured in the 1894 Bric-a-Brac.

During an interview near the end of his life, however, Johnson named neither John Henry Thomas nor Joseph Augustus Wickes — instead, he said a man named Simon Weeks had betrayed him. Alumni records don’t show a student by that name at the College, though Samuel Greeley Weeks 1838, from Connecticut, went on to study at the Princeton Theological Seminary and was still on campus at the time Johnson was exposed. But because of Weeks’ Northern background and the fact that he mixed little with fellow students, it’s unlikely that he was the culprit. Understanding Johnson’s reference to “Simon Weeks” thus remains one of the mysteries of the story.

In any case, the betrayal set off a chain of events that in many ways altered views of slavery and race at the College and in the town of Princeton. Philip and Severn Teackle Wallis dispatched a Maryland policeman to present their claim to New Jersey authorities and, assuming success on the claim, to bring Johnson back to Maryland. There are varying accounts of Johnson’s arrest. Some stories suggest that Johnson conceded easily to his arrest. Others indicate that Johnson, confronted by Severn Teackle Wallis on Nassau Street, denied knowing him and fled. According to these accounts, Johnson was seized almost immediately by Southern students, among them Thomas Devereaux Hogg 1844, from Raleigh, N.C. While resisting arrest, Johnson is said to have bitten Hogg’s finger to the bone.

Johnson’s trial took place in the midst of contrasting and sometimes conflicting aspects of federal and state law. It was under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 that James Johnson was tried in 1843. The act authorized the arrest or seizure of fugitives and empowered “any magistrate of a county, city or town” to rule on the matter. The act also established a fine of $500 against anyone who aided a fugitive. In response, some states, including New Jersey, began enacting what were called personal-liberty laws — legislation that guaranteed judicial process to escapees. Pro-slavery activists launched an attack on personal-liberty laws in a case that ultimately went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Prigg v. Pennsylvania. In March 1842, the court held in Prigg that most state-enacted protections for alleged fugitive slaves, such as the jury trials called for under New Jersey law, were violations of the 1793 act.

Johnson’s trial in August 1843 should have been conducted under the standard enunciated in Prigg, but his lawyers persuaded the judge to allow a jury trial. The fact that the chief juror, Josiah S. Worth, was a Quaker known for his rectitude and fairness was seen as an advantage for Johnson. Nonetheless, Johnson was convicted and slated for return to slavery in Maryland. He avoided return only when — according to most accounts — Theodosia Prevost paid approximately $500 to purchase his freedom. The sum is the equivalent of more than $10,000 today.

Prevost is perhaps the least-known actor in Johnson’s story. (This paucity of information is not unusual for women in the early and middle 18th century.) She was a member of a well-known family that included her father, attorney and civil servant John Bartow Prevost; her step-grandfather Aaron Burr Jr. 1772, the third vice president of the United States; her grandfather Samuel Stanhope Smith 1769, Princeton’s seventh president; and her great-grandfather John Witherspoon, Princton’s sixth president. She had firsthand experience with slavery: In 1804, when she was 3, Prevost’s family moved from New York to Louisiana, where her father became one of the first judges in the newly gained U.S. territory. Shortly after his arrival, her father became the owner of a Louisiana plantation and the enslaved people who worked it. After her mother’s death in 1807, and the departure of her father and brothers for a government post in South America just over a decade later, Prevost came to Princeton to live and became known as a philanthropist.

Many people in both the town of Princeton and at the College viewed slavery as wrong. However, local opposition to slavery in Princeton tended to be muted and leaned more toward gradual emancipation and African colonization than toward unconditional, immediate freedom for enslaved blacks. Prevost was a socially respected person in a place where “radical” abolitionism was frowned upon. But whether or not she was an abolitionist, she made freedom a reality for Johnson. In the years immediately after his trial, Johnson paid his debt to Prevost.

The 1850s brought many changes for Johnson. Phillis died in July 1852; Johnson married Catherine McCrea five months later, and the two had a daughter named Emily. In 1851, Johnson purchased land in Princeton, suggesting that his work as a janitor and as a salesman of used clothing and furniture to students had made him somewhat prosperous. When a fire gutted Nassau Hall in 1855, taking Johnson’s janitorial job, he petitioned College officials for permission to engage full time in the more lucrative work for which he would be known for the rest of his years: selling fruits, candies, and other snacks from a wheelbarrow to students on campus.

From the 1850s until 1880, Johnson lived a relatively settled life. Though his son, Thomas, seems to have disappeared from records, his daughter, Emily, married twice, the second time to a man from a highly regarded Princeton family. Johnson had been victimized by taunts and mistreatment by some students in his early years at the College, but by the 1870s he was a noted and even admired figure on the campus. His constant presence, jovial manner, and regular attendance at Princeton sporting events — along with his colorful, unusual outfits (he was, for example, often dressed in golf britches) — prompted students to see him as a mascot and emblem of good luck. His financial standing and College role made him a key member of the black community in Princeton at a time when many African American residents struggled for daily existence in low-wage jobs.

Some sources indicate that Johnson had four wives over his life. After the death of his wife Catherine in June 1880, however, records are silent about his marital status until 1895, when, at 78, he married Anetta Webb Warden, a member of a prominent black Maryland family and accomplished pianist who was more than 20 years younger than Johnson. Johnson’s marriage may have signaled his faith in his continued success. However, in the last few years of his life, the Johnsons apparently experienced the economic hardships that had long faced other African Americans in Princeton.

Though Johnson was still fondly regarded at the college, his livelihood was reduced when others were allowed to sell snacks to students, a privilege that for decades had belonged to him alone. In an interview conducted in his later years, Johnson complained about a white Civil War veteran who had been given a campus vending permit, invading Johnson’s fiefdom. When told that his anger was misplaced, and that the white veteran had fought for Johnson’s freedom, Johnson is said to have 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.” Johnson’s assertion that he was owned by the College may not have been literally true. But he likely saw in his redemption from slavery a mutual obligation not only between himself and the individuals who made his purchase possible, but also between himself and the College.

Despite hardship near the end of his life, the story of James Collins Johnson resonated at the College and in the town for years to come. Over the course of six decades and beyond, Johnson’s move from fugitive slave, to disdained manual laborer, to a vital part of Princeton’s town-and-gown life captured the imagination of whites and blacks alike. For some of the white students who encountered him, Johnson left a lasting impression as a font of humor and wisdom, an impression so deep that half a dozen alumni have written about Johnson in works of fiction and non-fiction. For many African Americans in Princeton, Johnson’s persistence and entrepreneurship served as a model for the development of businesses and social activities that provided them some measure of dignity and economic success for years to come. 

Lolita Buckner Inniss ’83, a professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University, maintains a Facebook page about James Collins Johnson. Her book about Johnson — which was awarded a grant by New Jersey as part of its 350th birthday celebration in 2014 — will be published by Rutgers University Press.