James Collins Johnson was a runaway slave from Maryland who arrived at Princeton in 1839 and worked as a janitor until 1843, when a student recognized him as a runaway slave and informed Johnson’s owner. After a trial, Johnson was finally released and went on to become a well-known figure in town and on campus.
On October 2, 1816, in Easton, Maryland, he was born by slaves and given to his parents’ owner’s son, Teakle Wallace, who was only a month older than Johnson. Johnson married a freedwoman in 1836, but he was unhappy that he was still in bondage, so he plotted his escape.
He used five dollars his owner Wallace gave him to work on something and left Easton on foot at midnight on August 8, 1839.
He told his wife he would return for her and continued on foot to Wilmington, Delaware. He boarded a riverboat bound for Philadelphia, changed his name to James Johnson, and purchased a train ticket to Trenton. Then he went to Princeton, New Jersey, to work as a janitor in Nassau Hall at the College of New Jersey, also known colloquially as “Princeton College.”
According to blogs.princeton.edu, he was recognized a few years later by Simon Weeks (Class of 1838), a student at Princeton Theological Seminary and a friend of the Wallace family. Weeks wrote to the Wallaces in Maryland to let them know.
Johnson would run into his owner a few weeks later at the local post office. In Princeton, a trial was held in 1834. Even though the Fugitive Slave Act existed, the New Jersey Personal Liberty Law of 1826 allowed for a hearing “in which a fugitive slave could speak on his or her own behalf.”
Many African-Americans and students supported Johnson, but the court ruled in Wallace’s favor, and Johnson was held under guard in an upper room of the Nassau Hotel following the ruling. Abolitionists began pleading with Wallace to release Johnson. Wallace agreed, but only on the condition that he be paid $550 (approximately $13,000 today). Wallace was paid by a local white woman named Theodosia Ann Mary Prevost, who had strong ties to Princeton College, and he let Johnson go free, leaving Princeton without Johnson. Johnson wasn’t a slave anymore.
“Perhaps to distance themselves from the alumnus who had informed Wallace of Johnson’s living in Princeton, the students of the College also took up a collection for Johnson and presented him with $100 to start over in Princeton as a free man.” Records show that Johnson repaid both Prevost and the students over the next few years,” writes blogs.princeton.edu in its report.
After gaining his freedom, Johnson is said to have opened a used clothing store on Witherspoon Street in 1855, buying and selling student rags. By 1880, he had resigned as a janitor for Princeton and obtained a monopoly on outdoor food vending on campus.
He pushed a wheelbarrow around Princeton, selling nuts, apples, and lemonade. Johnson became “incensed” later when Princeton allowed a white Civil War veteran to sell food on campus. He saw the veteran as a competitor, and when told that there was no need for him to be angry because the white veteran had fought for Johnson’s freedom, Johnson reportedly said:
“I never received any free papers.” Princeton College purchased me; Princeton College owns me; and Princeton College must provide me with a living.”
According to Princeton & Slavery, “Johnson’s assertion about being owned by the college may not have been literally true.” However, Johnson most likely saw his abolition of slavery as a mutual obligation not only between himself and the individuals who made his purchase possible, but also between himself and the college. Johnson may have felt that his agreement with the college no longer held when he found himself unable to afford housing and food near the end of his life.”
Nonetheless, Johnson’s entrepreneurship inspired many Black residents to start their own businesses in order to better their lives. After his death in 1902, Princeton alumni purchased a headstone for him in Princeton Cemetery, describing him as “the students’ friend.” According to blogs.princeton.edu, Princeton students regarded Johnson as an institution, exchanging stories about him for nearly a century while including his photograph in their yearbooks.