Memorial to Jessie Donaldson, Swansea

button-theme-slavesMemorial to Jessie Donaldson, Swansea

Portrait of Jessie DonaldsonA plaque at the Swansea College of Art was unveiled in 2021 to commemorate Jessie Donaldson, who helped many American slaves gain freedom.

She was born in Bristol in 1799. Her father, Samuel Heineken, was an anti-slavery campaigner. From 1829 she and her sister, Mary Ann, ran a school for girls and boys at 32 Wind Street, Swansea. Jessie belonged to the Swansea Anti-Slavery Society, the largest of many abolitionist groups in Wales.

In July 1840 she married Francis Donaldson of Ohio at a ceremony in Betws, near Ammanford. The couple moved to Cincinnati in 1856. Their house, named Clermont, stood on the opposite side of the river Ohio from Kentucky, where slavery was still widespread. The couple opened their house to fugitive slaves, making it one of the safe houses on the clandestine network – known as the “underground railroad” – which helped slaves from the southern USA to reach freedom in the northern states and Canada.

Jessie became friends with Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose popular 1852 book Uncle Tom’s Cabin opened many people’s eyes to the realities of life as a slave.

Other members of Jessie’s family had moved to the USA and were also active in the anti-slavery movement. Between them they set up three safe houses. One, named Penmaen (Welsh for “stone headland”), still stands. Jessie’s brother Samuel fought with the Union Army in the Civil War (sparked by disagreement over slavery abolition) until his horse was shot at the Battle of Stone River in 1863. He was held as a prisoner of war in Virginia.

The USA abolished slavery in 1865. In 1866 Jessie and Francis returned to Swansea, where she attended the town’s Unitarian church. Francis died in 1873, aged 78. In the following year Jessie saw the Fisk Jubilee Singers, from Nashville, perform in Swansea – the first choir of freed slaves to sing in concert halls. Jessie died in 1889, aged 91, at her home in Sketty.

With thanks to Jen Wilson

Postcode: SA1 3EU     View Location Map

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