The Underground Railroad in Philadelphia wasn’t a railroad and it wasn’t underground. It was a secret network of escaping slaves seeking freedom and the people who helped shelter, feed, and strategize with them along the journey. African-Americans, whites, men, and women, motivated by religious or political reasons, worked together and separately to help freedom seekers escape slavery.
Did you know Philadelphia was a hotbed of anti-slavery activity in the years before the Civil War?
One Philadelphia place where anti-slavery activity took place was the Johnson House, home to generations of the Johnson family, all Quakers. Quakers opposed slavery. But Quakers differed about the best way to end slavery. Some advocated gradual emancipation as the best strategy.
Not the Johnsons. Likely led by Jennett Rowland Johnson, the Johnsons became politically active abolitionists and turned their house into a stopping point for fugitive slaves. That meant the Johnsons were breaking the law. Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, giving food or shelter to a runaway was punishable by prison and a huge fine of $1000.
A Stop on the Underground Railroad in Phildelphia
The Johnson House was ideally located for sheltering freedom seeking slaves. It was in Germantown, a Quaker neighborhood where Quakers who disapproved of the Johnsons’ activism would not report them to police. The house was at a busy intersection, across from an inn and a funeral parlor, so neighbors were used to seeing strangers coming and going. The house is about 8 miles – a day’s walk – from the Philadelphia port where many escaping slaves arrived by ship. The path from downtown Philadelphia to the Johnson farm was mapped out by rivers and a creek.
The Johnsons also invited political organizations trying to end slavery to meet in the house. Famed abolitionists Lucretia Mott, Robert Purvis, Harriet Tubman, and William Still all likely met in the Johnson House to strategize about tactics to abolish slavery and assist freedom seekers.
Each week, usually Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, the Johnson House is open for excellent docent-led tours of about 45-minutes. For the schedule and other details, email [email protected] or call (215) 438-1768.
Want more ideas for things to do in Philly? Check out these free things to do in Philadelphia.
Have you explored Civil War or Underground Railroad history? Tell us about it in the comments.