The Welsh woman who left everything behind to help slaves to freedom in America

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A chance discovery made by a historian who was “ploughing through” old newspapers revealed incredible stories from the era of slavery in the United States.

Jessie Donaldson, a teacher at a school in Wind Street, Swansea, was an active anti-slavery campaigner during the 19th Century. At the time, Swansea had one of the largest and most active abolitionist campaigns in Wales but Jessie would go one step further than campaigning from thousands of miles away. 

Born in Bristol in 1799, she was the daughter of anti-slavery campaigner Samuel Heineken and picked up her father’s mantle in opposing slavery throughout her 90 years.

As well as being a vocal supporter of the abolition of slavery from her home in Wales, Jessie moved to Ohio in the United States in 1854 to set up a safe house on the ‘underground railroad’, a network used by slaves in the south to escape to freedom in the north and Canada.

It took historian and founder of Jazz Heritage Wales Jen Wilson 10 years to piece Jessie’s story together, starting with one of several what she calls “eureka” moments searching old newspapers at the library.

“I’m a cultural historian and I was tracing how African-American music had first come to Wales.



A sketch of Anna Margaretta Donaldson, Jessie’s aunt, who also left Wales to set up a safe house in the United States

“I was ploughing through the Cambrian News and something caught my eye. They’re usually just dense print these old newspapers but there was one section with a gap around it and blacker print than the rest of the page.

“It said that a Mrs Donaldson had died [in 1889] and that was highly unusual because women’s obituaries did not appear in papers then at all.

“The first two-thirds were about her father, of course, but the final paragraph said ‘Mrs Donaldson died at nearly 91 and lived in America for 10 years and ran safe houses for runaway slaves.’

“I was gobsmacked. If a historian gets one eureka moment this was mine but then it was followed by a second.”



Anti-slavery campaigner Jessie Donaldson



The view to the River Ohio from Jessie Donaldson’s safe house

Trawling through the pages of The Cambrian again later in her research, Jen found another incredible story linking Swansea with slavery in the United States.

In February 1833 a 21-year-old man known only as Willis, the name he was given on the American plantation where he had been enslaved, docked in Landore, Swansea, aboard a cooper ore carrier called the St. Peter.

Willis had stowed aboard the vessel in New Orleans where the ship had stopped for supplies after picking up its cargo of Chilean copper ore bound for Swansea.

“It must have been good luck that he stowed away in that particular ship. He hid in the hold and one of the seamen found him and took him to the captain.

“The captain told him he would have to work his passage back to Swansea and the lad helped the cook in the galley and worked his way back to Landore,” Jen said.



Actor Christian Rae (left), plays Willis in Before Freedom, a show which toured schools in Swansea

Willis was born on a southern plantation in 1813 and had made a perilous 800-mile journey down the Ohio River to make his escape. Jessie Donaldson would later built her safe house next to the River Ohio, helping slaves cross from one bank to the other.

“The Portreeve [port warden] at Swansea set him free right there at the dock. There was no discussion or committee meetings about it with the council even though some of the crew weren’t sure if he should be freed.

“The captain gave him a couple of sovereigns, enough for about two weeks accommodation, and that was it.”

The Slavery Abolition Act was passed in the British Parliament in August 1833, just months after Willis’ arrival in Swansea, abolishing slavery in most British colonies.

The trail on Willis goes cold after that, except for a newspaper article in the Cambrian News which Jen thinks might suggest he stayed in Swansea.

It is a story about well-known characters in the city, published when Willis would have been in his 80s, and mentions an old black man who was known for sitting on a wall in Northampton Lane. He would nod, smile, and wave at passers-by and tell them: “I used to be a slave.”

Jessie’s story took another turn when Jen’s son moved to the US, by coincidence to Cincinnati near to where the Donaldson’s safe house was. When visiting her son Jen trawled through the records at a local museum.

“This is where I found out the American side of her story. The people at the museum couldn’t understand what I was saying because I was talking so fast and waving Jessie’s obituary at them.

“They said ‘slow down ma’am’ and after I told they the name they said: ‘We have a Mrs Pat Donaldson who comes in here quite a lot tracing her family history actually.’

“I asked if it was possible to meet her. They rang her up and she said: ‘I’m coming over.'”

Jen and Pat formed a friendship and Jessie Donaldson’s descendant filled in the blanks for Jen, sharing incredible images taken from Jessie’s safe house in the 1800s.

The house, named Clermont by Jessie, was one of three safe houses set up by the Donaldson family along the Ohio River in the 1800s.

One of them, called Penmaen after a farm owned by the family, is still standing today.



Jessie’s counsin Susannah and her husband in Penmaen safehouse



A picture of Penmaen taken in the modern day

Jessie and her husband Francis returned to Swansea in 1866 and she died there in 1899 at the age of almost 91. Her incredible story was almost lost to history but it is now known that she played a major part in the freeing of slaves and knew the abolitionist and former slave Fredrick Douglass among other key figures in the American anti-slavery movement.

At the moment a debate is raging about whether the names and images of those who profited from slavery should have a place in the public realm in the form of street names and statues.

The sad truth is that there were many slave owners of Welsh origin and 15% of African-Americans are believed to have Welsh-sounding surnames today.

It was recently revealed that slavery was widely used in the copper industry, of which Swansea was one of the world’s biggest players, particularly in South America.

However Jen and others are calling not for statues to be pulled down but for some sort of memorial to Jessie and Willis to be placed in Swansea to immortalise their story.

“It’s an opportune time to do this. Jessie deserves a plaque and after that we’ll try and get funds for statues of Jessie and Willis down on the docks. It would be fantastic but that’s down the line somewhere,” she said.

You can read the stories of Jessie and Willis in Jen’s book Freedom Music: Wales, Emancipation and Jazz 1850-1950 which is available from University of Wales Trinity Saint David Press



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