“Princeton College Bought Me”: The Life of a Fugitive Slave in Princeton

Many nearly-forgotten legends surround James “Jimmy Stink” Collins Johnson, who lived in Princeton for most of his life after escaping from slavery in Maryland. Today it is impossible to completely separate fact from fiction, but this is our best reconstruction:

The sources tell us that two slaves in Easton, Maryland, welcomed a baby on October 2, 1816. Early in his childhood, their mistress gave the boy, James Collins, to their master’s son, Teakle Wallace, who was only a month older than James. James married a freedwoman in Church Hill, several miles away, in 1836. Frustrated with captivity, James began planning an escape. When Wallace gave James five dollars for some reason, James seized the opportunity and left Easton on foot at midnight on August 8, 1839, never to return. After stopping to say good-bye to his wife and promise he would send for her when he could, he continued walking to Wilmington, Delaware, where a portion of his money bought him fare on a riverboat to Philadelphia. At this point, he changed his name to James Johnson. In Philadelphia, he bought a train ticket to Trenton. Legend has it that he had just fifty cents left when he arrived in Trenton, which he spent on train fare to carry him as far north as possible. His destination was Princeton, New Jersey, where he arrived on August 10.

In Princeton, Johnson found work at the College of New Jersey, colloquially called “Princeton College,” as a janitor in Nassau Hall. A few years later, Simon Weeks (Class of 1838), a student at Princeton Theological Seminary and a friend of the Wallaces, saw and recognized Johnson and wrote back to Maryland to report on this. Some weeks passed. Then, as Andrew Clerk Imbrie later wrote for the Nassau Lit, Johnson’s master confronted him at the local post office. Johnson “stood quaking before young Teakle Wallace a picture of abject misery. Visions of the old days came back to him … he had tasted liberty since then, and his whole nature revolted at the idea of going back to once more become a slave.”

James_Johnson_AC67_BoxMP4

James Johnson and unknown young man, ca. 1890, Historical Photograph Collection, Individuals Series (AC67), Box MP4.

The law was on Wallace’s side, though sentiment in Princeton mostly fell with Johnson. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 not only required local officials to arrest escaped slaves, but also punished anyone who aided a fugitive slave with a fine of $5,000 (well over $115,000 in today’s currency). New Jersey gave Johnson at least some hope with the New Jersey Personal Liberty Law of 1826, which required a hearing in which a fugitive slave could speak on his or her own behalf. In 1836, the New Jersey Supreme Court had ruled in State v. Sheriff of Burlington that such cases could only be tried by jury.

A diverse group attended Johnson’s trial. African American friends were reportedly planning to resort to their own devices to free Johnson if necessary. Many students hoped Johnson would be given his freedom legally. The drama was also of interest to Southern students who worried that local opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act might make the jury side with Johnson. Tensions mounted as all awaited the verdict.

The jury ultimately determined the evidence to be in favor of Wallace, though at least one juror said that the law itself was the only reason he voted that way, being personally opposed to slavery. After the ruling, Johnson was held under guard in an upper room in the Nassau Hotel. Princeton was home to many abolitionists, and when the verdict was not in their favor, they began trying to convince Wallace to let Johnson go. In 1879, John Frelinghuysen Hagemen, a local attorney, wrote to explain, “here such a case was novel and peculiarly revolting to the moral sense of the community.” (History of Princeton and Its Institutions) Wallace said he would not free Johnson without being paid $550 (roughly $13,000 today). A young woman named Theodosia Prevost gave Wallace what he asked, and Wallace left Johnson in Princeton, 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.

After securing his freedom, Johnson began to display an entrepreneurial spirit. He opened a used clothing store on Witherspoon Street in 1855, buying and selling student castoffs. He wore the ones he most liked himself and gained a reputation for an unusual sense of style. He operated the store successfully until 1880, when he also resigned his post as janitor for Princeton, and secured the rights to a monopoly on outdoor food vending on campus. For the rest of his life, he sold apples, nuts, and “lemonade” (likely some sort of alcoholic beverage) from a wheelbarrow he pushed around Princeton. At football games, he cheered heartily for the orange and black while selling refreshments.

It is hard to know how Johnson truly felt about Princeton. His experiences, like town sentiment toward him, seem to have been mixed. Student publications typically refer to Johnson by the nickname given to him after a student asked him to retrieve a lost watch from a latrine, “Jimmy Stink.” (Reportedly, Johnson did not clean up after finding the watch in the muck and came to the student still covered in human waste.) When Princeton allowed a Civil War veteran to sell food on campus, introducing a rival, Marion M. Miller of the Class of 1886 wrote that Johnson was “incensed.” Miller thought Johnson should have responded differently. “Aleck fought, bled, and might have died to free you,” Miller told Johnson. Miller remembered the response this way: “‘Free me?’ Jimmy exclaimed. ‘I never got no free papers. Princeton College bought me; Princeton College owns me; and Princeton College has got to give me my living.’”

James_Johnson_1894_Bric

James Johnson, Bric-a-Brac (1894).

Whatever Johnson’s feelings, Princeton students considered Johnson an institution, exchanging stories about him for at least a century or so and including his photo in their yearbooks. In 1896, the students of Princeton decided to take up another collection for Johnson, with the Daily Princetonian urging, “He has long been a feature of the campus and, now in his old age, we feel that he should be cared for by those whom he has known and who all remember him.” He was so beloved of Princeton alumni that they purchased a headstone for him in Princeton Cemetery declaring him “the students’ friend” after his death in 1902. Johnson had lived in Princeton for 63 years.

Those interested in learning more about the life Johnson lived in Princeton may want to visit this Facebook page, managed by Lolita Buckner Inniss, currently working on a book about Johnson using materials in our collections.

Sources:

Bric-a-Brac

Crimmins, T. A. C. “Jimmy Stink of Princeton.” Nassau Lit (November 1941).

Daily Princetonian

Hageman, John Frelinghuysen. History of Princeton and Its Institutions. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1879.

Historical Photograph Collection, Individuals Series (AC067)

Imbrie, Andrew Clerk. “James Johnson of Princeton: A Biography.” Nassau Lit (April 1895).

Inniss, Lolita Buckner. “James Collins Johnson and the Princeton Fugitive Slave Case.” African American National Biography, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Higginbotham. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Miller, Marion M. (Class of 1886). “Jimmy Johnson, D. C. L.” Princeton Alumni Weekly (April 23, 1948).

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