Sara Lucy Bagby Johnson: The Last Slave Prosecuted Under the Fugitive Slave Act

by Devyn Giannetti , Communications Specialist, Department of Communications

Photo of Bagby in a bookRecords from the Cuyahoga County Archives helped us learn the story of Sara Lucy Bagby Johnson. Johnson was the last slave prosecuted under the Fugitive Slave Act. This federal law declared that runaway slaves must be returned to their owners.

Johnson was born in Virginia in the early 1840s and in 1852 was purchased from a slave trader in Richmond by John Goshorn of Wheeling for $600. In 1857, he gave her as a gift to his son, William S. Goshorn. In October 1860, she escaped from Wheeling and made her way to Cleveland. Her owner pursued her there, had her arrested, declared his property and returned to Wheeling by train in January of 1861. There are multiple accounts of rescue attempts in Cuyahoga and Stark County to save Johnson on her train ride back to Wheeling.

After the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which declared that people held as slaves residing in states in rebellion against the U.S. would be freed, Johnson walked to Athens, Ohio and later to Pittsburgh where she married George Johnson, who had been a soldier in the Union Army. They relocated back to Cleveland, where Johnson worked as a cook and house servant.

A record from the archivesOn September 10, 1904, Johnson attended a meeting of the Cleveland Early Settlers Association and was introduced to its members. The organization’s chairman told the story of Johnson’s harrowing journey from slavery to freedom and recognized her as the last enslaved person to be returned to slavery under the Fugitive Slave Act, just before the beginning of the Civil War. When introduced, she received a warm and enthusiastic welcome from the audience.

Johnson died July 14, 1906 of septicemia (a serious bloodstream infection) and her funeral was held at Mt. Zion Congregational Church, where she had been a member for more than 30 years. She is buried in Cleveland’s Woodland Cemetery.

To see more of our Cuyahoga County Black History Month Series, read about George Peake.

Sources: Records that helped tell this story include the book “Black Americans in Cleveland” by Russell H. Davis and the Ohio County Public Library website. 

Information indicated in a journal

A newspaper digest from the Annals of Cleveland showing the price that Johnson was being sold at as a slave.

Portrait of Bagby in a book

A portrait of Johnson from the annals of “The Early Settlers Association of Cuyahoga County”.

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