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York’s Underground Railroad Heroes: Bossy and Julia Johnson

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In the 1850s, John “Bossy” Johnson, a black man living in York, Pennsylvania, was accused have run away from his owner, a Baltimore woman, and arrested for violating the Fugitive Slave Law. He claimed he was a free man. The ensuing trial generated significant interest in York County before Johnson was eventually released. The Spring Garden Township man was quite active in the Underground Railroad movement, along with his wife Julia and sister-in-law Susan Mars.

Julia Johnson (known affectionately in the community as Aunt Juley), like “Susie” Mars, was a paid servant in the sprawling mansion of leading white businessman and former U.S. congressman Charles Barnitz, who was himself a secret operator in the Underground Railroad. The number of freedom seekers that Barnitz, the Johnsons, and Mars assisted, and their exact methods in doing so, are uncertain. According to early York historian Israel Betz, over time Susie and John “assisted many a poor runaway slave to make his escape toward Canada.” They managed “to secret away these castaways until an opportunity availed itself to show them the road to the Big River [the Susquehanna].” Operatives in Wrightsville likely then helped the freedom seekers make it into Lancaster County.

Julia Johnson lived most of her later years in an old house on S. Duke Street between King and Princess. It was torn down in 1884 by its new owner, Frank Reever, to build a new residence on the site. At the age of 94, Aunt Juley died at her home on E. Princess Street at 2:30 in the morning of March 4, 1887. She is buried in Lebanon Cemetery.

Her obituary in the York Daily on March 9 gives us a little more information on her and Bossy.

“Mrs. Julia Johnson, or “Aunty Juley” as she was best known, was at the time of her death probably the oldest person in York. According to the family records she was born in that part of Baltimore county, Maryland, known as Quaker Bottom, from which place she was taken to Gettysburg, and from thence she came to York, entering the service of the Barnitz family, with whom she resided for many years, and of whom she retained the most kindly affection to the day of her death. While in the service of the Barnitz family she married John, better known as ‘Bossy’ Johnson, by whom she had ten children, but three of whom survive her. During the existence of the Fugitive Slave Law, her husband was arrested as a fugitive slave and claimed as the slave of a woman living in Baltimore. The trial created considerable excitement in York at the time, but John’s mother, a German woman, came forward and sworn to his identity, which settled the case.

“Aunt Julia lived to see the fifth generation, and her descendants number ten children, twenty-four grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and four great-great grandchildren. Mr. James B. Mars, of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Mrs. Eliza Chester, Mrs. Mary Grey, Henry Bradley and daughter, and Captain Samuel Bennett, of Harrisburg, Pa., were in York on Sunday attending the funeral. Peace to her remains.”

For more local stories from the Underground Railroad, please pick up a copy of The Ground Swallowed Them Up: Slavery and the Underground Railroad in York County, Pa., available from the York County History Center or from author Scott Mingus.

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