Passmore Williamson's Prison Visitors' Book

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Help the Chester County Historical Society save Passmore Williamson’s Prison Visitors’ Book  

Who was Passmore Williamson? In 1855, Williamson was jailed for refusing to cooperate in recovering Jane Johnson and her two sons. Johnson was an enslaved woman who sought and gained freedom in Pennsylvania with Williamson’s assistance.  He spent 100 days in Moyamensing Prison before he was released. 

Why preserve this book? The book is tangible proof of the fight against slavery. Passmore Williamson’s prison visitors’ book contains the signatures of famous abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass. The book demonstrates how Williamson’s principled stand against injustice inspired others to speak out on his behalf.  

Why is his Visitors’ Book important? Over 500 men, women and children visited Williamson to show their support.  The signers came from 14 states, the District of Columbia, Canada and Ireland. In addition to Frederick Douglass, other prominent abolitionists who visited include Harriet Tubman, William Still, Robert Purvis, Caleb and Isaac Clothier, and Mary Ann Shadd (formerly of West Chester, PA, but then living in Ontario).  The book also contains letters from Oberlin College, Longwood Progressive Friends, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and Senator Charles Sumner.  Tucked in the back is a letter from William Cooper Nell conveying gratitude from Jane Johnson, who was safely living in Massachusetts.  

Why does the book need conservation treatment? The leather on the book’s spine and corners is almost completely gone, and the front and back covers are worn and completely detached.  Many pages are loose or very tenuously attached. Many of the pages and attached letters are creased and torn.  The book cannot be handled without risking further damage.  Each page of the book will require treatment, and the binding must be restored. 

What will happen to the book after it is treated? The book will only be exhibited for limited time periods in order to ensure its long-term preservation. The entire book, however, will be scanned and digital images will be available online and in the CCHS Library.  A transcribed and annotated list of signatures will also be placed online, to which the public will be able to submit additional information on the visitors.  By requesting the public’s help, we will build a more complete database documenting the extensive community that rallied around Passmore Williamson and supported his principled stand against slavery.  This information will be used as the basis for new school and public programming. 

What was the Top 10 Endangered Artifacts campaign? Pennsylvania’s Top 10 Endangered Artifacts was “a campaign that celebrates our state’s most inspiring items” while building awareness and raising funds for much-needed conservation work.  Nominated items were selected by an independent review panel and represented a range of institutions from across Pennsylvania. During the campaign, which ran for six weeks last fall, people could vote for and donate to their favorite artifacts. The visitors’ book won the People’s Choice Award, with 1,968,595 votes, social media shares, and individual donations.  Since the campaign began, we have raised $18,000 towards our goal of $25,480. 

How can you help? Five hundred people supported Passmore Williamson by visiting him in prison.  If five hundred people give $15.00, we will reach our goal and the book will be restored.  Please help us preserve his book and tell his story. Every donation matters, but please consider making a donation of $15.00 or more towards the conservation fund.  Become one of Passmore Williamson’s 21st-century supporters today. Please contact David Reinfeld at 610.692.4800 x 267 or dreinfeld@chestercohistorical.org for more information or to make a donation to this initiative.

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Many thanks to our individual, corporate, and foundation supporters especially the Chester County Bar Foundation, Philadelphia Foundation, and Pennsylvania Abolition Society. 

For more on Passmore Williamson and the campaign to save his prison visitors’ book, please visit: 

“Passmore Williamson’s Visitors’ Book”  

Chester County Historical Society selected to participate in Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts’ Top 10 campaign 

Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts announces winner of People’s Choice Award

Top 10 campaign featured on WHYY’s Newsworks Tonight

All book photos credited to Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts, Philadelphia, PA