Johnson House Historic Site
…An Underground Railroad Stop
1700’s: Built 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. Several objects that belonged to the Johnson family are inside.
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 the front door in October 1777, the family took refuge in the cellar. Their religious beliefs also kept them from defending their property when soldiers entered their home to steal food from their kitchen. Scars from the Battle of Germantown are still visible inside the house.
The Johnson family owned a substantial amount of land in Germantown and was one of the town’s wealthiest families. They were active supporters of the Concord School, Germantown’s first English-speaking school. The school, located across the street from the Johnson House, is still standing and open to the public for tours. John Johnson’s son Samuel was a member of both the first school board and the first town council in Germantown.
1800’s: When Samuel married in 1805, he moved into the Johnson House with his bride Jennet Rowland Johnson. As did many Quakers, Samuel and Jennet 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 African freedom seekers. Tradition holds that prominent abolitionists William Still and Harriet Tubman visited the Johnson House.
1900’s: Members of the Johnson family owned the house until 1908, and was possibly slated for demolition. In 1917 the Woman’s Club of Germantown purchased the house. The Woman’s Club was a community-minded group whose purpose was to influence the social, civic, educational and philanthropic life of Germantown. The Woman’s Club used the house as their headquarters and filled it with fine antiques, furniture and china.
In 1919, the Woman’s Club built a large assembly hall directly behind the house. That building is now the Meeting place of the Germantown Mennonite Church.
The Woman’s Club owned the house until 1980, when it disbanded and gave the house with all its contents to the Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust to operate as a house museum.
The Johnson House Today: In 1983, the Johnson House, together with Cliveden of the National Trust, offered local schools the first program to highlight the role of African Americans in Philadelphia’s history.
In 1992 the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, an association of African American collegiate and professional women, named the Johnson House “A site to be cherished for its significance to black history.”
On June 1, 1995, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission dedicated the Johnson House with a Pennsylvania Historic marker which is placed prominently in the yard. This marker honors the generations of Johnsons who worked for the abolition of slavery and its position as a station on the Underground Railroad.
In 1997, with Gwendolyn Carol Johnson as Chair, the Department of the Interior through the National Park Service dedicated the house as a National Historic Landmark. The newly created legal corporation, the Johnson House Historic Site, Inc. assumed administrative responsibility for the House and Grounds, with neighboring Cliveden of the National Trust providing mentoring services in curator ship, preservation and programming. This new cooperative effort provided opportunity for a broader coalition of preservationists, community members, and those interested in multi-cultural tourism that participates in telling the stories of the site’s role in the abolition of slavery and as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
In 2005 the Johnson House received the status of “Highly Valued American Historic Site” by the National Park Service when it was awarded a Save America’s Treasure Grant. This grant along with grants from the Network to Freedom and PA’s Keystone provides the funds for the Roof Restoration and Structural Stabilization project that assures the preservation of the Johnson House.
On the 19th of October, 2002, the deed was transferred over to the Johnson House Historic Site, which ended the multi year joint ownership with the Germantown Mennonite Church.