The Lost History of Frederick Douglass and James Collins Johnson (1816 – 1902), the Princeton Fugitive Slave, a friend to generations of students (see: “The Princeton Fugitive Slave: The Trials of James Collins Johnson (2019), by Professor Lolita Buckner Iniss)


James C. Johnson and young man, circa 1890. Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

For fifty-six years this old negro has been a familiar figure about the Princeton campus; he is known by nearly every living alumnus, and hundreds whom he saw graduate have long ago passed away. Myths and traditions have clustered about him, rumors have sprung up which in after years have been accepted as true, and stories are told which I fear cannot always be “mentioned in the presence of Mrs. Boffin” as Dickens would say.

And yet, no one has ever undertaken the task of “writing him up.”

Lest you should doubt this statement, let me assure you that the prototype of “Caesar Courteous ” in His Majesty Myself was old Pompey Polite who graced these classic walks long before Jim made his romantic entrance upon the stage. It is therefore an unexplored field of biographical research which we are about to enter. As such it presents unlimited opportunities to the casual student of history; there is a fascination, a kind of subtle charm, about treading where none have trod before ; and the writer of this little article hopes that what he may have to say about Jim will interest the chance reader as much as the personality of Jim himself has interested the alumni at whose suggestion this biography is written.

It was on the second day of October, 1816, in the little town of Easton, Maryland, that Jim was “ b-b-b-born ” and began his long and honorable career.

Rumor has it that a dazzling star with an important name was at that time high in the ascendant; but whether this be true or not I cannot tell, knowing nothing of the facts. Jim’s parents were slaves of a Colonel Wallace.

They were justly proud of their offspring, and yet I sometimes suspect the pride they had in their ownership was slightly tempered, for they knew their boy would be, as they had always been, but a piece of their master’s property.

When Jim was a very little fellow, his mistress made of him a Christmas present, and gave him to her son.

Young Teakle Wallace was but one month older than Jim, and we can imagine with what surprise he awoke on that bright Christmas morning, to see the warm southern sunlight stream through his window, causing to sparkle with increased brilliancy the pair of sharp black eyes which blinked so wonderingly above the stocking’s rim.

The two boys grew up together, played the same games, fished in the same streams, and bathed in the same ponds; and so, as Jim assured me, it is to day a source of endless regret that his business cares have compelled him to break the last-named habit, formed so happily in early youth.

James C. Johnson and unidentified solider, circa 1874. Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

The plantation adjoining that of Col. Wallace belonged to a Col. Lloyd.

The country thereabout has away of producing large quantities of colonels, but I am very sure they deserve this title of respect even if they did not all smell powder or hear the rattle of musketry.

However, the fact I wish to record is that in February, 1817, upon the plantation of Col. Lloyd, another slave boy was born.

He was, you observe, but four months younger than Jim, and the two boys, living as they did on neighboring farms, were thrown much together. Early in life, Fred (for that was the other’s name) began to exert his influence over Jim.

For Fred had some very decided opinions, some very definite ambitions, and his long cherished dreams of liberty soon became the guiding principle of his life. And he confided his hopes and fears in Jim.

It is said that many a time, down in the meadows back of the house, Fred delivered impassioned orations to a small but appreciative audience composed of Jim and a yellow dog.

And when at length words failed him, Jim would exhibit his rows of shining white teeth, while the little dog wagged his tattered tail persistently. Ay I here was a scene of rustic simplicity; and if we are base enough to doubt its truth, let us not accuse the hero of these events on the ground of falsehood, but rather let us ascribe the mistakes in his narrative to the failing memory of an old man, into whose past fact and fancy are inextricably interwoven.

But whatever truth there may be in this incident, history has shown us that the young slave orator was destined to a broader field of usefulness than that of stirring the heart of his small companion, for his career since that time has been one of the most interesting and remarkable in the history of our country; although born a slave he became in after life an active and influential agent in the abolition of slavery, and was subsequently elevated to several responsible National offices.

American annals furnish no more captivating illustration of a self-made man than Frederick Douglass.

It was in 1836, when Jim was twenty years old, that he made the first of his long series of matrimonial ventures. His wife had been freed by a kind-hearted master, and she was living at this time with her sister in a little log cabin at Church Hill, three miles away.

She is said to have been very beautiful, and to have had away of looking at one with her large dark eyes that would set one’s heart beating beyond all manner of reckoning.

Auntie Feminist: Lolita Buckner Inniss JD,LLM,PhD on Twitter: "The Princeton  Fugitive Slave: The Trials of James Collins Johnson is available on  @AmazonKindle! @princetonslave… "

And yet Jim’s early married life does not appear to have been entirely satisfactory; the domestic bliss he had hoped for was never fully realized so long as those three weary miles separated him from his dusky bride.

During the week he accompanied his young master on all his journeys as body servant, or acted in the most approved style as valet-de-chambre at home, and when Saturday night came he would leave Easton on foot and tramp to Church Hill, returning regularly every Monday morning. For three years he did this. He was becoming inexpressibly tired of it all.

Those three miles seemed to have an elasticity which developed as time wore on, and the contrast between riding on all occasions when with Mr. Wallace, and walking on all occasions when by himself, began to appear very striking.

And at times he would think over what Fred Douglass had told him about slavery being wrong, and about the great unknown land to the north, where everyone was free, and a great many other things which Jim could not remember, but which had sounded very pleasant to his ears.

The idea of running away somewhere began to take definite shape in his mind. For many long years he had cherished this hope in a vague sort of away; and now the winter and spring of 1839 had slipped silently by since Douglass had escaped north, and it seemed to Jim that the day must soon come when he too would leave for distant parts unknown.

The day did come—or rather the night …


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