O'Brien on Inniss, 'The Princeton Fugitive Slave: The Trials of James Collins Johnson'

Lolita Buckner Inniss
G. Patrick O'Brien

Lolita Buckner Inniss. The Princeton Fugitive Slave: The Trials of James Collins Johnson. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019. 272 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8232-8534-1.

Reviewed by G. Patrick O'Brien (Ave Maria University) Published on H-Slavery (October, 2019) Commissioned by Andrew J. Kettler (University of California, Los Angeles)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54582

“I never got no free papers. Princeton College bought me; Princeton College owns me; and Princeton College has got to give me my living” (p. ix). This statement, recorded during an interview in the 1890s, represents one of the few instances where James Collins Johnson was able to shape his own historical narrative. Born into slavery in Maryland in 1816, Johnson escaped north in 1839, settling in Princeton, New Jersey. Although he escaped the ownership of his enslaver, Philip Wallis, Johnson found that in antebellum New Jersey, “freedom was not entirely free” (p. 41). Shortly after his arrival, Johnson found work at Princeton University, where students and alumni often referred to him by degrading nicknames, including the popular “Jim Stink.” Johnson is perhaps best remembered for having been rescued from a return to slavery following his capture and trial in 1843 by the charitable auspices of a few local philanthropic whites. Even in death, Johnson was unable to craft his own epitaph. Upon his passing in 1902, alumni and students took up a collection and erected a gravestone that simply noted Johnson was “the students’ friend” (p. viii).

Lolita Buckner Inniss is herself a Princeton alumna, who was first introduced to the fairytale-like story of rescue and redemption during her freshman year in 1979. Even as a young student, Inniss was suspicious of what she judged to be an overly simplistic narrative and vowed someday to more closely investigate Johnson’s life and connection to the university. The impetus came while attending the “Slavery and the University” conference hosted by Emory University in 2011. In choosing to focus on the life and times of one formerly enslaved man, Inniss offers a fresh new vantage from which to view the connection between the institution of slavery and American universities. Rather than explain how affluent white university founders reinvested slave-produced capital into the creation of colleges, or expose how university officials owned and hired enslaved workers on campus, Inniss aims to “explore, expose, and ultimately to give a clearer picture of Johnson on his owns terms” (p. 129). In doing, she also investigates slavery and the memory of slavery on American campuses. The result is a study that not only discredits one college’s commonly accepted tale of a fugitive slave’s rescue, but also provides a nuanced study of the protagonist’s actions and intentions to better understand both free black workers and black communities in nineteenth-century New Jersey. The work’s strengths consequently lie in restoring black voices to the study of slavery on college campuses and probing the relationship between universities and free black populations throughout surrounding towns. Although detailing the life of one individual comes with its own challenges, especially considering that character’s marginalized status as first a slave, then a fugitive, and finally as a nominally free black man in a town with a number of racial and class hierarchies, Inniss’s study offers future scholars a new perspective from which to view the complex historical questions of slavery on university campuses.

To follow Johnson from his birth as a slave through his escape, capture, and trial, and finally as an ostensibly free man, Inniss draws on an impressive collection of sources. The scarce documentary evidence on Johnson’s life forces Inniss to speculate about many seemingly important details, including how and why Johnson escaped slavery in Maryland, the circumstances that brought him to Princeton and first involved him with the university, some critical facts concerning his capture, trial, and release, and aspects of Johnson’s post-trial life. However, Inniss’s familiarity with and use of a broad source base justifies the conclusions she makes. She thoroughly draws from New Jersey and Maryland census records to trace Johnson’s residences and changing households. Because of Johnson’s connections to a number of well-connected white and black residents of the greater Princeton area, Inniss is able to draw from the personal correspondence of many families to more thoroughly consider Johnson’s life and times. Consulting what are perhaps the most complete accounts of Johnson’s life, even if tainted with white students’ bias, Inniss pulls from a few published accounts from Princeton University in the nineteenth century, including Princeton student Charles C. Imbrie’s 1895 biography of Johnson that appeared in the Nassau Literary Magazine and Marion Mills Miller’s “Jimmy Johnson D.C.L,” which appeared in a 1948 edition of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. She also consults student publications, local and regional newspapers, the few court records that detail Johnson’s trial, as well as the official Princeton University records to flesh out both Johnson’s experience and the circumstances of whites connected to his troubled histories.

Inniss also states that she approaches Johnson’s story from two distinct methodological perspectives. Foremost, she recognizes that Johnson’s story is an example of the distinctly American genre of fugitive slave narratives, and as such, has been “framed by the words of white interviewers … and validated by testimonials, letters of reference, or other documents attesting to the veracity and reliability of the black subject and the authenticity of his or her claims” (pp. 3-4). Influenced by Valerie Smith’s work on double voice, Inniss is careful to examine not only how whites may have manipulated Johnson’s story to meet their own agendas, but also how Johnson may have framed his own story to meet white expectations. Inniss also notes that she investigates Johnson’s story using a genealogical approach. By genealogical, Inniss explains that she is not referring to Michel Foucault’s investigation of plural and often contradicting narratives to recognize how influences of power shape the past; instead, she clarifies, “I mean genealogy in the more traditional sense … to establish the origins and relationships of families and persons” (p. 6). To this end, Inniss dedicates large sections of the book to trace some of the unknowns in Johnson’s family history and document the broader connections of some of the most important white families who influenced his life, including the Wallis family who enslaved him, the Wickes family who may have betrayed him, and the Prevost family who played a role in providing the money to purchase his freedom.

Organized chronologically, Inniss’s study begins by exploring the circumstances that led to Johnson’s escape. Not content to simply explain that Johnson had ambitions for freedom, she traces both the personally pragmatic and broader social pressures that convinced Johnson—who was born James Collins and only later adopted Johnson as a surname to perhaps hide his true identity—to flee slavery. Two events in Johnson’s personal life pushed him to consider escaping. First, only three years before his escape, Johnson married a manumitted black woman named Phillis. Although marriages between enslaved black men and free black women were not uncommon in Maryland at the time, the family lacked stability. In 1837, Philip Wallis began moving his property to a plantation managed by his son Severn Teackle Wallis in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Because the Wallises shared ownership of their enslaved property, Johnson may have fled in order to escape being moved away from his wife. Inniss also explains that while there were a few Baltimore residents who held antislavery beliefs, a “web of social and legal norms” continued to dictate the lives of enslaved peoples and diminish prospects for free blacks throughout the region (p. 28).

Because the surviving accounts of Johnson’s escape from slavery in 1839 are contradictory, Inniss offers a reasonable assessment of his flight. Although Johnson’s own account from 1895 differs from earlier evidence presented during his trial, Inniss notes that similarities between Johnson’s later depiction and popular fugitive slave narratives from the same region, including the account of fellow Maryland escapee Fredrick Douglass, suggest that Johnson was probably familiar with these accounts and may have intentionally obscured the details of his own escape to withhold important information concerning the methods that runaway slaves employed. However, Inniss also notes that such commonalities, including how runaways disguised themselves to board steamboats heading to Pennsylvania and then boarded trains to escape slave catchers in border states, may simply demonstrate the common avenues to freedom.

Although Johnson, and other runaway slaves, could have reasonably expected to find life in New Jersey less restricting than in Maryland, Inniss uses her second chapter to document how throughout the state, and especially in Princeton, “the specter of slavery and its attendant practices loomed large” (p. 38). In 1804, the New Jersey legislature passed a law making the children of slaves born after July 4 of that year nominally free, providing they serve their master or their master’s agents for a number of years. However, in 1827, the state’s supreme court ruled in Ogden v. Price that the 1804 ban did not outlaw the sale of apprenticed children. In 1847, a law freed children born after its passage but also deemed slaves born before that year as apprentices for life, meaning they were little more than slaves by another name. While navigating the legalism of antebellum New Jersey offered its own unique challenges, Johnson would have also had to learn the class and racial hierarchies that governed the town of Princeton and the college that provided much of its economic stimulus. Coming to Princeton, Johnson would have a found a town that unlike his native Baltimore included an overwhelmingly white population. Despite this difference, a small but important black community lived on Witherspoon Street, and many free blacks found employment on Princeton’s campus. Like many others, Johnson’s time in Princeton was spent “between town and gown” (p. 54).

Inniss next provides a detailed investigation of slavery at Princeton, or the College of New Jersey as it was then known, during the 1830s and 1840s. Like many other elite universities of the time, many of Princeton’s faculty had familial ties to slavery. As well, a few professors, including theologian and mathematician Albert Baldwin Dod, remained slaveholders. Despite these ties, Inniss also demonstrates that at least a few faculty members supported emancipation, but the majority of these more liberal-minded professors also supported African colonization for freed blacks. Furthermore, as “the most southern of the Ivy League schools,” many students who attended Princeton came from slave-owning families, and while they could not bring their slaves to campus, they were not always quiet about their support for the institution and their detestation for abolitionists (p. 46). Both southern and northern students often committed acts of violence against white abolitionists in the town of Princeton and, at least in one case, against free blacks in town. As Inniss notes, “For James Collins Johnson, the Princeton campus represented freedom, but that freedom was also bound up in norms of slavery, with the ever-present possibility of unprovoked or unjustified white violence on blacks, and the absence of redress for such incursions” (p. 53). 

In the third chapter, Inniss explores one of the two most important ambiguities in Johnson's runaway narrative by investigating the events that led to his arrest. Importantly for Inniss, examining exactly who reported Johnson’s whereabouts helps tear down the “congratulatory paean to white goodness” and helps “assign responsibility for Johnson’s enslavement, and especially for attempts to enslave him” (p. 58). The source base originally suggested two different betrayers. J. Jefferson Looney’s reprint of the 1853 book College as It Is, or the Collegian’s Manual, points the finger at Princeton student Joseph Augustus Wickes; but to Imbrie, Johnson identified a “Simon Weeks” as his betrayer. However, Inniss’s investigation proves that both are incorrect. Student enrollment and court testimony suggest that Johnson may have meant Simon Wickes, the cousin of Joseph Augustus Wickes who also had ties to Kent County, Maryland, and may have been familiar with Johnson’s escape.

The penultimate chapter focuses on the trial of James Collins Johnson and allows Inniss to demonstrate her expertise at the academic intersection of law and race. She explains that Johnson’s trial involved a representative cross section of the Princeton community and drew attention from outside the town as well. Because nineteenth-century court records are sometimes sparse, Inniss draws from the personal correspondence of both the defense and prosecution to better analyze the case. Critically, Inniss situates Johnson’s trial in the aftermath of the 1842 ruling in Prigg v. Pennsylvania and as a part of a number of cases that confronted the “moral-formalist dilemma,” or as Inniss explains, “the conflict between the personal sentiments of judges and other legal actors and the need to adhere to existing legal norms” (p. 78). Although Prigg stipulated that Johnson should not have received a trial jury, the magistrate ruled in favor of Johnson’s attorneys, Princeton’s own William Cowper Alexander and Philadelphian Edward Armstrong, granting Johnson a trial by jury. In addition to the surprising disregard for precedent, the mixed feelings in the greater Princeton area toward slavery created a tense atmosphere. Although few of their names survive, Inniss suggests that because some of the jury members, including the chief juror, Josiah S. Worth, were Quakers, sympathies for the defendant were high. Outside the courtroom, proslavery students clashed with free blacks from the area. While Johnson’s counsel was able to secure a trial by jury, it was a short-lived victory. The jury ruled that Johnson was to be returned to the Wallises.

But unlike Margret Morgan and her children, the defendants in Prigg v. Pennsylvania, Johnson was not returned to slavery. Central to the traditional laudatory narrative told at Princeton, Theodosia Ann Mary Prevost is identified as Johnson’s redeemer. According to this telling, because the Wallises were pragmatic men they accepted $500 for Johnson’s freedom. But little is known about exactly why Prevost came to Johnson’s aid. Inniss dedicates chapter 5 to understanding Prevost and demonstrating that the act was far less charitable than it may appear. Perhaps most importantly, Prevost had familial connections to Princeton University as the step-granddaughter of Aaron Burr Jr., whose father had served as the university’s second president. Having never married, it is likely that Prevost drew most of her wealth from her father, John Bartow Prevost, who had been both a judge and lawyer in New Orleans before James Monroe appointed him special agent to Peru, Buenos Aires, and Chile, where he earned a $4,500 monthly salary in 1823.

While the 1860 census reveals that Prevost owned $15,000 in real property, her fortunes alone do not explain why she chose to redeem Johnson. Here again, Inniss launches an investigation into others who may have assisted Prevost, especially the wealthy Quaker philanthropist Thomas Lavender. But Inniss also investigates the role Princeton University may have played in securing Johnson’s labor. Although the Johnson’s redemption narrative highlights Prevost’s generosity, Inniss documents that at least one newspaper recorded that Johnson agreed to work for Prevost for five years at the rate of $100 a year to repay his debt. Furthermore, Johnson’s own remark about being “bought” by Princeton suggests that the university may have helped gather the capital to secure Johnson’s release to keep him tied to the college.

In the final chapter, Inniss traces Johnson’s post-trial life. As a vendor of sweets, and later as the operator of a boarding house in Princeton, Johnson was able to achieve some financial success. However, he was never able to escape the more demeaning life of a free black man working on Princeton’s campus. Foremost, Johnson’s work on campus was “all-consuming and demanding” (p. 101). Charged with not only cleaning rooms, shining shoes, and ensuring fires continued to burn, Johnson and other servants also toiled to remove “soil buckets” from students’ rooms even after the multistalled latrine was installed between two of the main campus buildings in 1861. His toil with student excrement led to humiliating nicknames, including “Jim Stink” and “James Odoriferous” (p. 102). A cartoon printed in the “off-color student humor journal, the Nassau Rake” satirized Johnson as a man willing to “go fishing” in the latrine to retrieve personal items for a nominal fee. While he was a sort of mascot for undergraduate students, he was the constant "butt of jokes" (p. 114). His work, as well as his stutter, became points of ridicule. But, cognizant of her protagonist’s more subtle forms of resistance, Inniss also notes that Johnson may have helped create this depiction and used his reputation to his advantage. “His sunny good humor may also have been an ironic subterfuge … pacifying members of the heavily southern student body,” Inniss explains, “or he may have sought to obscure his underlying anger or sadness at the trying circumstances of his day-to-day life” (p. 116).

Inniss follows Johnson through the increasingly segregated town of Princeton following his trial through the post-Civil War years. In 1851, Johnson bought a home at 32 Witherspoon Street for $187. He also greatly expanded his secondhand clothing store business. After his first wife’s death in 1852, Johnson married Catherine McCrea, and the couple had one daughter, Emily Johnson Sorter Gordon, who died right around the time of Johnson’s third marriage to Anetta Webb Warden. But for all his success and personal tragedies, both the town and university of Princeton changed very little from Johnson’s first arrival as a fugitive slave. Princeton University was among the last elite colleges to admit black students—the first undergraduate degree awarded to a black student was in 1947—and violence against blacks during the Civil War left deep divisions between the black and white communities in town. As Inniss notes, “however dear Johnson may have been to town and gown, at the time of his death he and the town’s black community remained outside the mainstream of white life” (p. 127).

Inniss’s study of the many trials of James Collins Johnson not only rescues her subject’s voice but also “sketches in the background in which Johnson appears” to examine enslavement in Maryland and race relations in antebellum New Jersey and at Princeton University, as well as Johnson’s betrayal, trial, rescue, and post-trial life (p. 130). But for all the successes, her work is not without a few pitfalls. Considering her attention to methodology, it seems an oversight not to more explicitly frame Johnson’s story as a microhistory and use Johnson’s story, as Jill Lepore explains, to draw “the reader’s attention away from the subject and toward the culture.”[1] In addition, while zooming in on Johnson and his adoptive home provides a detailed account of free black labor in Princeton, it is possible that adopting a comparative approach and juxtaposing Princeton with another town might illuminate and contextualize labor and race relations even more clearly. Considering Johnson’s beginnings in the Baltimore region and this work’s emphasis on labor and race, it seems to be a mistake not to consult Seth Rockman’s study on labor and slavery in Baltimore.[2]

Collectively, Inniss’s work provides an exciting model for future scholars of slavery and labor. Perhaps most importantly, Inniss skillfully and compassionately restores Johnson’s voice to his own historical narrative. In her concluding remarks, Inniss also notes that while a number of universities have made strides toward recognition and reconciliation, another important r-word is often missing: reparations. “It is one thing to say mea culpa, I am guilty,” Inniss notes. “It is quite another to say debitor sum—I am indebted” (p. 132). We will wait to see if more studies like Inniss’s push universities to seriously consider reparations. 


[1]. Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” The Journal of American History 88, no. 1 (2001): 129-44; 142.

[2]. Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

Citation: G. Patrick O'Brien. Review of Inniss, Lolita Buckner, The Princeton Fugitive Slave: The Trials of James Collins Johnson. H-Slavery, H-Net Reviews. October, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54582

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