Central Pennsylvania African American History for Everyone
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the 20th Century

James W. Johnson, a Formerly Enslaved
African American Resident


Significant numbers of formerly enslaved African Americans made their homes in central Pennsylvania in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some escaped enslavement and traveled north via the Underground Railroad before 1865. Many more found themselves no longer enslaved by war's end and looked north for job opportunites or to escape the harsh poverty and crushing racism of southern Reconstruction. The first few decades of the 20th century saw large numbers of southern Blacks moving north to take advantage of the plentiful jobs in northern industries.

Their presence in northern cities enriched each African American community. Their shared first-hand stories of lives enslaved broadened the historical perspective and served to counter the "Lost Cause" myths. Knowing which citizens were formerly enslaved is invaluable for modern historians and persons researching their family histories. Small connections can often add up to bigger stories. The news items below represent snippets in the lives of these persons.

News Item, January 26, 1899

News item about James W. Johnson's lawsuit, Lackawanna County.

Text of news article:

  An Ex-Slave is Suing the Borough of Archbald to Recover Damages for Injuries Sustained by Falling Into a Ditch.

  Judge Simonton was occupied all of yesterday in trying the trespass case of James W. Johnson, of Winston, against the borough of Archbald. He sues for $20,000 damages for injuries received by falling into an unprotected ditch on Main street in Archbald.

  The plaintiff is an aged colored man and an ex-slave. He sold once for $1,150, but the law, of course, will not permit that to be used as a basis for measuring the damages he suffered in body and estate in the present instance. He, his son, his son's white housekeeper, his daughter and his daughter's white husband were the principal witnesses on hte plaintiff's side.

  The defense put on a number of residents and officials of the borough to show that the ditch into which Johnson claims he fell was off the regularly travelled thoroughfare and that no person in his sober senses would have wandered from the path which leads around the dangerous place.

  Attorney Joseph O'Brien on cross-examining one of the defendant's witnesses as to the extent of Johnson's injuries provoked a general laugh by unthinkingly asking if the witness noticed any black marks on the plantiff's alleged broken leg.

Follow up news article:

News item reporting the results of James Johnson's lawsuit.

Despite the defense solicitor's contention that the judge had overstepped his legal authority in charging the jury to reach a decision despite an initial deadlock, his action, depending upon his exact wording of his further instructions to them, might have been a "Dynamite" charge, or an Allen charge, named for the Supreme Court decision Allen v. United States, in which they allowed such instructions. It seems to have held up, as there does not appear to have been a retrial, and Mr. Johnson won his suit and was awarded $1,250, an amount, though significantly smaller than the $20,000 that he sued for, was not out of line with similar cases.

Scranton Tribune, Scranton, PA, 26 January 1899, Morning Edition, p. 6.
Scranton Tribune, Scranton, PA, 28 January 1899, Morning Edition, p. 7.

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