“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.

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