Underground Railroad

Media - 1967.59.645 - SAAM-1967.59.645_2 - 141189
Copied William H. Johnson, Underground Railroad, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard, 33 3836 38 in. (84.892.4 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.645

Artwork Details

Underground Railroad
ca. 1945
Not on view
33 3836 38 in. (84.892.4 cm.)
Credit Line
Gift of the Harmon Foundation
Mediums Description
oil on paperboard
  • Figure group
  • History — United States — Black History
  • History — United States — Underground Railroad
  • African American
Object Number

Artwork Description

In 1872 a Pennsylvania freedman named William Still (1821--1902) published The Underground Railroad, a book that told the personal stories of almost three hundred travelers, many of whom he had sheltered on their dangerous journey north. Johnson selected thirty-six figures and seven vignettes that he traced from engravings in Still's book. Each boat, train, wagon, even the scene of the man climbing out of a shipping crate, signifies the arduous journey of a specific individual. Maria Weems, for example, in a hat and purple jacket at the upper right corner, was separated from her mother and sister at a Virginia slave auction when she was just thirteen. Abolitionists "purchased" her mother and sister, who were soon living as free women in New York. Two years later, an anti-slavery activist rescued the still-enslaved Maria and gave her boy's clothing. The two traveled north where she was reunited with her family.

We don't know why Johnson chose these particular people to feature in his painting, but collectively their stories tell of lives oppressed by cruel masters, of pursuit by brutal slave catchers, and of assistance offered to the sick and exhausted by caring individuals, both Black and white.


Media - 1983.95.53 - SAAM-1983.95.53_2 - 142417
Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice
March 8, 2024September 8, 2024
William H. Johnson's Fighters for Freedom series from the mid-1940s is a tribute to African American activists, scientists, teachers, and performers as well as international heads of state working to bring peace to the world. The exhibition Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice is drawn entirely from the collection of more than 1,000 works by William H. Johnson given to the Smithsonian American Art Museum by the Harmon Foundation in 1967 and reminds us that individual achievement and commitment to social justice are at the heart of the American story.