On this dayDec 30, 1864

Hampton Johnson Flees Enslavement in Richmond, Virginia

On December 30, 1864, a black man named Hampton Johnson ran away from enslavement in Richmond, Virginia. It was in the midst of the Civil War, and nearly two years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had rendered Johnson and many other enslaved black people free under the laws of the United States, Nevertheless, weeks later, Hampton Johnson's purported “owners” placed an ad in the <i>Richmond Dispatch</i> newspaper, offering a reward for his return.

For many black people, resisting enslavement meant fleeing bondage in the South to reach northern regions that had outlawed slavery and offered the promise of freedom. Many did so with the help of the Underground Railroad, an activist network led by Harriet Tubman and other courageous men and women who braved great risks to provide shelter, transportation, guidance, and other resources to thousands of runaways. This was a dangerous undertaking due to federal "fugitive slave" laws, enacted as early as 1793, that required residents of all states to forcibly seize and return black people who had managed to escape slavery, and authorized harsh punishments for those who did not.

Though the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in January 1863 and freed all enslaved people in rebelling territories – including Virginia, which had seceded from the Union to join the Confederacy – most Confederate states refused to recognize the proclamation and continued to enslave black people.

The January 1865 newspaper ad seeking Hampton Johnson’s return described him as “a Negro boy” of 25 years, 5'6" tall, 130 lbs, able to read and write “remarkably well,” married but forced to live apart from his wife, and skilled as a mechanic. The advertiser, W.B. Cook, offered $1000 to anyone who captured him “within the enemy’s lines,” and $500 if captured within Virginia. This ad is evidence that black people like Hampton Johnson remained vulnerable to recapture and re-enslavement through the war’s end. Even after the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in December 1865, abolishing slavery in America “except as punishment for crime,” many Southern officials and communities resisted the change through discriminatory laws, economic exploitation, violence, and intimidation.

We do not know Hampton Johnson’s ultimate fate, but if his decision to flee slavery in December 1864 ended at freedom, he was one of approximately 100,000 enslaved men, women and children who successfully escaped enslavement in the United States before 1865.

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