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William H. Johnson, born Florence, SC 1901-died Central Islip, NY 1970  Search this
oil on paperboard
33 3/8 x 36 3/8 in. (84.8 x 92.4 cm.)
ca. 1945
Exhibition Label:
In 1872 a Pennsylvania freedman named William Still (1821--1902) published The Underground Railroad, a book that told the personal stories of almost three hundred travelers, many of whom he had sheltered on their dangerous journey north. Johnson selected thirty-six figures and seven vignettes that he traced from engravings in Still's book. Each boat, train, wagon, even the scene of the man climbing out of a shipping crate, signifies the arduous journey of a specific individual. Maria Weems, for example, in a hat and purple jacket at the upper right corner, was separated from her mother and sister at a Virginia slave auction when she was just thirteen. Abolitionists "purchased" her mother and sister, who were soon living as free women in New York. Two years later, an anti-slavery activist rescued the still-enslaved Maria and gave her boy's clothing. The two traveled north where she was reunited with her family.
We don't know why Johnson chose these particular people to feature in his painting, but collectively their stories tell of lives oppressed by cruel masters, of pursuit by brutal slave catchers, and of assistance offered to the sick and exhausted by caring individuals, both Black and white.
Figure group  Search this
African American  Search this
History\United States\Black History  Search this
History\United States\Underground Railroad  Search this
Credit Line:
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation
Object number:
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Smithsonian American Art Museum Collection
Painting and Sculpture
Data Source:
Smithsonian American Art Museum