Swansea woman Jessie Donaldson who bravely fought slavery in America around 170 years ago will be honoured by her home city on June 19, (also referred to as Juneteenth) – the oldest known celebration of the ending of slavery in the United States.
A blue plaque has been installed by Swansea Council outside the University of Wales Trinity Saint David’s (UWTSD) Dynevor building in the city centre to celebrate the actions of the campaigner.
Jessie travelled to Ohio in the 1850s to operate a safe house, risking fines and prison sentences for offering shelter and protection for slaves as they tried to escape from the southern states to the north of America.
A video documenting Jessie’s journey has been created by Timi O’Neill, Programme Director of BA Film & TV at UWTSD’s Swansea College of Art. It will be shown on the Big Screen in Castle Square on the morning of June 19.
Cllr Yvonne Jardine, Swansea Council’s Councillor Champion for Sanctuary and Inclusion said: “The blue plaque recognises Jessie Donaldson’s role in the long fight against slavery in the United States which culminated in the American Civil War. Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the US so it’s apt that the day was chosen for the unveiling of the plaque.”
Cllr Robert Francis-Davies, Swansea Council’s Cabinet Member for Investment, Regeneration and Tourism said: “I’m pleased that we’re honouring Jessie Donaldson on such an important day in the anti-slavery calendar. After moving from Swansea to America, she provided sanctuary for slaves escaping from the southern US states to reach freedom in the north. Today, Swansea is designated nationally as a City of Sanctuary and so it’s fitting that we recognise Jessie with this blue plaque.”
The blue plaque nomination was submitted to the Council by Swansea cultural historian Professor Jen Wilson, founder of Jazz Heritage Wales which is based in the city’s Dylan Thomas Centre as part of UWTSD.
Professor Wilson, who has researched Jessie’s life over many years, said: “Jessie Donaldson, at the age of 57, left Swansea to embark on an extraordinary life of international politics on a grand scale, her house on the banks of the Ohio river was the third of the Welsh safe houses for runaway slaves.
“Jessie’s friends in the anti-slavery movement were Frederick Douglass, a freed slave, fugitive slaves Ellen and William Craft, the fiery campaigner William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriet Beecher Stowe the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Throughout the American Civil War Jessie worked alongside her friends, enabling fugitives from the plantations across the river to seek freedom. Jessie returned home to Swansea in 1866.”
Whilst undertaking research in Cincinnati, Professor Wilson made several visits to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. The Center is an impressive building on the Ohio riverbank where the history of slavery is told through film and oral history. Visitors are able to step inside one of the original slave holding pens where chained slaves were held awaiting a ship.
The Center’s Senior Research Historian Carl Westmoreland identified the old holding pen in a field then in disrepair, secured funding, and had it rebuilt in the Freedom Center. The Center is now filled with children, students, and families, all learning their heritage.
“Mr Westmoreland agreed to help our project and filmed his story, which is now part of our archives as well as the Freedom Center’s,” added Professor Wilson.
Professor Ian Walsh, Provost of UWTSD Swansea, said: “We are delighted that Jessie’s extraordinary efforts are being recognised in this way. It’s also a tribute to Professor Wilson’s tireless research in unearthing this truly inspirational story of selfless commitment to justice and liberty.”
Professor Wilson’s book ‘Freedom Music: Wales, Emancipation and Jazz 1850-1950’ tells how Jessie emigrated to Cincinnati in her 50s and helped fleeing slaves during the American Civil War. In subsequent years choirs and bands of freed slaves visited Swansea to perform abolitionist campaign songs, spirituals and gospel music.
Jessie was born in 1799, the daughter of lawyer Samuel Heineken and mother Jennet. She lived in a three-storey terraced house in Dynevor Place, Swansea, for 41 years with sister Mary and brother Samuel.
In the 1820s she opened a school in Wind Street.
At the age of 41 in 1840 Jessie married Francis Donaldson. They set up home in a three-storey terrace in Grove Place where they lived for 16 years.
In 1854 the couple emigrated to Cincinnati and lived there throughout the American Civil War (1861-65) which began primarily as a result of the controversy over slavery. They ran their safe house for fleeing slaves; it was part of the famous Underground Railroad escape network.
The couple returned to Swansea in 1866 and lived briefly at 2 Phillips Parade before moving to Ael-y-Bryn, Sketty. Jessie died in 1889.
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