Telling Our Story: An Underground Railroad Stop
Constructed in 1768, the Johnson House was one of Germantown’s oldest existing year-round homes. It looks much the same today as it did in 1768. The dark stone, cut and dressed in the front, is native to the area. The Dutch doors are original to the house as is much of the woodwork, flooring, and glass. Domestic objects belonging to the Johnson family are on exhibit throughout our historic site.
John Johnson, son of Dutch immigrant Dirk Jansen, built the house as a wedding present for his son John, Jr., and his bride Rachel Livezey. John Johnson, Jr., was a tanner and farmer and operated the tannery business from his home. As Quakers, the Johnsons believed in non-violence. Consequently, while the Battle of Germantown raged outside their front door in October 1777 during the Revolutionary War, the family took refuge in their cellar. When soldiers entered their home to pilfer food from their kitchen, the Johnson family’s religious beliefs kept them from defending their property. Scars from the Battle of Germantown are still visible inside the house.
The Johnsons owned a substantial amount of land in Germantown and were one of the town’s wealthiest families. They were active supporters of the Concord School; Germantown’s first English-speaking educational institution. John Johnson’s son, Samuel, was a member of the first school board and the first town council in Germantown. The Concord School, also a historic site, is located across the street from Johnson House and is open to the public for tours by appointment only.
When Samuel married in 1805, he moved into Johnson House with his bride Jennett (Rowland) Johnson. As did some other Quakers, Samuel and Jennett promoted their anti-slavery beliefs by offering their home as a station on the Underground Railroad.
They provided sanctuary, food, clothing, and transportation to untold numbers of enslaved Africans. Through research, we know that William Still, prominent abolitionist, Father of the Underground Railroad, and secretary of the Philadelphia Antislavery Society, participated in “meetings” at Johnson House. William Still was a free man. Tradition holds that prominent abolitionist Harriet Tubman may have visited the Johnson House.
1913 – 1980
The Johnson family owned the property until 1913, after which it was reported that the house may have been slated for demolition. However, in 1917, the Woman’s Club of Germantown – a community-focused group that influenced the social, civic, educational, and philanthropic fabric of life in Germantown – purchased the house. The Woman’s Club of Germantown was a white woman-only club, thus denying membership to Black women.
The Woman’s Club of Germantown made the Johnson House their headquarters, filling it with antiques, furniture, and fine china. In 1919, they built a large assembly hall directly behind the Johnson House, which is now the meeting place of the Germantown Mennonite Church. The Woman’s Club of Germantown owned the house until 1980, when it disbanded and gifted the house, with all of its contents, to the Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust to operate as a house museum.
Johnson House Historic Site, in collaboration with Cliveden of the National Trust, offered local schools the first program to highlight the role of African Americans in Philadelphia’s history.
Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, an association of African American collegiate and professional women, named Johnson House “A site to be cherished for its significance to black history.”
On June 1st, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission dedicated a Pennsylvania Historic marker to the Johnson House, honoring generations of Johnsons who worked for the abolition of slavery.
The U. S. Department of the Interior, through the National Park Service, dedicated the house as a National Historic Landmark. A historic marker was installed to commemorate its status. The newly created legal corporation, Johnson House Historic Site, Inc., assumed administrative responsibility for the house and grounds. Neighboring Cliveden of the National Trust provided mentoring. This new cooperative effort offered the opportunity for a broader coalition of preservationists, community members, and those interested in multicultural tourism to participate in telling the stories of the site’s role in the abolition of slavery, and as a station on the Underground Railroad.
A deed of ownership was transferred to Johnson House Historic Site, Inc., from the Germantown Mennonite Church on October 19th, which ended the multi-year joint ownership of the property.
Johnson House received the status of “Highly Valued American Historic Site” from the National Park Service when it was awarded a Save America’s Treasures grant.
Also, from 2005 to the present date, Johnson House set as its priority, critical tasks required to assess and plan for extensive preservation and restoration of the museum. Through this work, the following has been completed:
• Heritage Preservation Conservation Assessment (2005)
• Phase I Archaeological Investigation & Resource Management Plan (2005)
• Engineering Report: Conditions Assessment of Mechanical/Electrical Systems (2006)
• Conservation Assessment Program Survey (2006)
• Preservation Project -Professional Mobilization #1: Roof Replacement, Structural
• Stabilization, and Dormer Window Restoration Plan (2006-2008)
• Johnson House Historic Site Preservation Plan (2007-2010)
• Deed of Façade and Open Space Easement (2009)
• Preservation Project Professional Mobilization #2: Window/Door Restoration, Masonry Pointing, Interior Structural Repairs, Moisture Intrusion/Water Diversion (2013-2016)
Community Visioning Session
Johnson House Historic Site’s leadership was stirred by the desire to revise its vision, mission, and statement of purpose to incorporate expanded community engagement. Its leadership believes these revisions should enhance the quality of life for residents and businesses while preserving the rich historical and cultural experiences of the site.
To explore this concept, Johnson House held a Community Visioning Session with 14 participants from surrounding communities. An intergenerational group of participants from varying socio-economic backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and genders were asked to contribute their insight, knowledge, and wisdom to the discussion about the future role of the JHHS and to help answer the question – What does the Johnson House want to be?
Click Here – Community Visioning Session Review >>