Chris Densmore, curator at the Friends Library at Swarthmore, a historian who studies Quaker involvement in the Underground Railroad, and a board member at the Kennett Square Underground Railroad Center, had noticed different versions of a story he originally knew as only a local history in the Kennett Square area. He asked several researchers if they could discover more pieces to make the story more complete.
In his request, Densmore called attention to an entry in Sydney Gay’s Record of Fugitives:
Antislavery Office Nov 24/56
Henry Brown, alias Johnson, from Maryland, where he was owned by a Mr. Levi Evans, a farmer. Johnson, says, he left Maryland for the North last Fall but met with an accident on his way from bondage, in Wilmington Del. Being well known in Wilmington, Del, through which place he was making his journey north, and fearing he would be discovered he leaped from the cars whilst in motion and in doing so came near losing his life: as it was he is a cripple for the remainder of his days here upon earth. Johnson is a single man, about 20 years old. Has 3 sisters, slaves, also in Maryland. And further Johnson saith not.
Densmore recognized this entry as another version of a well-known local history story: “the Kennett Underground Railroad Center loves the story of Johnson Hayes Walker, a freedom seeker, who had to jump from a train arriving at Wilmington, badly injured his foot, and was then taken to Kennett Square where he was given refuge by three people named Johnson, Hayes and Walker. He later returns to Kennett Square to thank his three benefactors whose names he adopted as his own.”
Densmore found the same story in William Still’s book, 751-752, mostly based on a letter from Grace Anna Lewis, who lived near Kimberton, Pennsylvania:
One case, of which the [Lewis] sisters for a time had charge, seems worthy of a somewhat more extended mention. In the fall of 1855 a slave named Johnson, who, in fleeing from bondage, had come as far as Wilmington, thinking he saw his master on the train by which he was journeying northward, sprang from the car and hurt his foot severely. The Kennett abolitionists having taken him in hand, and fearing that suspicious eyes were on him in their region, felt it necessary to send him onward without waiting for his wound to heal. He was therefore taken to the Lewises, suffering very much in his removal, and arriving in a condition which required the most assiduous care. For more than four months he remained with them, patient and gentle in his helplessness and suffering, and very thankful for the ministrations of kindness he received. He was nursed as tenderly as if his own sisters had attended him, instead of strangers, and was so carefully concealed that the nearest neighbors knew not of his being with them. Their cousin, Morris Fussell, who lived near, being a physician, they had not to depend for even medical advice upon the outside world.
As the sufferer's wound, in natural course, became offensive, the care of it could not but have been disagreeable as well as toilsome; and the feeble health of one of the sisters at that time must have made heavier the burden to be borne. But it was borne with a cheerful constancy. In a letter which Grace Anna wrote after she had attended for some time in person to the patient, with the care and sympathy which his condition demanded, and begun to feel her strength unequal to the task, in addition to her household duties, she asked a friend in Philadelphia to procure for her a trusty colored woman fit to be a helper in the work, offering higher wages than were common in that region for the services required, and adding that, indeed, they could not stand upon the amount of pay, but must have help, if it could be obtained, though not in a condition to bear undue expenditure. But, she said, the man " is unable to be removed; and if he were not, I know of no place where the charge would not be equally severe." So, in perfect keeping with her character, she just quietly regarded it as a matter of course that it should still continue where it was. And there it did continue until spring, when the man, now able to bear removal, was conveyed to the writer, and, after a time, went thence to Boston. There his foot, pronounced incurable, was amputated, and the abolitionists supplied him with a wooden limb. He then returned and spent another winter with the Lewises, assisting in the household work, and rendering services invaluable at a time when it was almost impossible to obtain female help. The next spring, hoping vainly to recover in a warmer climate from the disease induced by the drain his wounded foot had made upon his system, he went to Hayti, and there died; happy, we may well believe, to have escaped from slavery, though only to have won scarely two years of freedom as an invalid and a cripple.
Robert C. Smedley wrote about the incident in his book, History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania in 1883 (page 178-9). His account was similar to Still’s account, but Smedley claimed Walker immigrated to Jamaica and died there. Densmore mentioned that in additional to these two conflicting accounts of Walker’s death, Gay’s account implies Walker recovered and lived a longer life.
Intrigued by Densmore request to look into the story to see what could be added or clarified, I zeroed in on one specific question Densmore raised: could his owner, Levi Evans of Maryland, be found? I apparently did find him, and shared the information with Densmore. Evans was the name of a prominent family in Cecil County. There was a Levi H. Evans who owned land in the Principio Furnace area, and close to the tracks of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad, according to the 1858 Martinet Map of Cecil County. Principio Furnace is adjacent to Perryville, and both towns had PW&B RR train stations; Walker could have boarded the train at either stop, or possibly along the track between the two towns. After I shared this information, Densmore checked Ancestry for 1860, and found Levi H. Evans listed in the slavery schedule as the enslaver of two young slaves, so Densmore and I are reasonably confident that this was the Levi Evans that Walker had escaped from.
This story was brought to my attention about a year after confirming Underground Railroad activity on the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad at Perryville (MD), for the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom project. Freedom seekers used that railroad to pass through or flee from the Perryville area, and Walker’s story is one more example.