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  • Ari Betof

History in Focus: 3 Fascinating Stories from Pennsylvania's Past

Founded by William Penn as a haven for Quakers, Pennsylvania was one of the original 13 colonies. The state’s capital, Philadelphia, hosted the first and second Continental Congresses, the latter producing the Declaration of Independence in 1775.

The Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and other monuments to America’s revolutionary history draw visitors to Pennsylvania from far and wide. The state has produced some of America’s most celebrated historical figures, including inventor and patriot Benjamin Franklin, painter Edward Hicks, frontiersman Daniel Boone, and inventor Robert Fulton.

In this article, we explore three fascinating Pennsylvanian stories, from Philadelphia’s 19th century underground abolitionist network helping to free 100 slaves a year, to the Pennsylvanian jazz scene.

Pennsylvania’s Underground Railway

William Still worked as a clerk at the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society’s Philadelphia office. One day in August 1850, a man named Peter Freedman turned up at his office.

A former slave traveling under the assumed name of Peter Freedman, the man was a fugitive with a fascinating story to tell. However, William Still was too busy to pay much attention. At the time, anti-slavery activists were focused on the great national slavery debate taking place in Congress. The story of an former slave from Alabama was of little consequence in comparison. However, the interaction took on a whole new dimension as William Still suddenly realized that the fugitive sitting across from him was actually his brother.

Still’s parents were from Delaware. Both former slaves, they had been forced to leave behind two children when they escaped to find freedom in New Jersey. The boys were sold to a plantation owner in Alabama.

Sadly, only one survived. He proved to be bright and dependable, his owner lending him out to local shopkeepers. “Peter Freedman” was subsequently bought by two Jewish merchants who secretly allowed him to work for his freedom, helping him to relocate to the north.

Pennsylvania’s Underground Railroad was a scheme used to evacuate runaway slaves. Philadelphia’s network of abolitionists helped more than 100 people escape slavery every year, most arriving as fugitives from Washington DC, Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. The runaways were attracted to Pennsylvania not just because of its close proximity, but because it was home to the largest free African-American population, with over 56,000 residents by the eve of the Civil War.

Pennsylvania’s Native American Past

Prior to William Penn being granted land rights in order to establish his colony, King Charles and his heirs accepted the claims of Native Americans living throughout the region. By 1768, all of the state had been purchased, except the northwestern third. Although the transition of land was seemingly peaceful, following failed attempts to live harmoniously and subsequent battles, many of the state’s Native Americans gradually migrated west.

On behalf of the Quakers, William Penn entered into negotiations with the Lenape, one of the most prominent Native American peoples occupying the region, initially seeking peace. In 1682, the two sides entered into the Treaty of Shackamaxon, an agreement that formalized the purchase of land, declaring peace between Native Americans and European settlers.

Over the years, relations between the settlers and natives gradually soured, however. This arose partially as the result of miscommunication, combined with an increase in English colonizers arriving in Pennsylvania, in addition to disease, outward land expansion, and a transfer of power. Following William Penn’s death, control of the land passed to his sons Thomas and John, who were notorious for selling tracts of land without the local tribes’ consent.

Eventually, colonial officials enlisted the help of the Iroquois, another prominent Native American tribe, to help drive the Lenape from the land. Many Lenape relocated to Kansas, Oklahoma, and Indiana, subsequently splintering into different groups.

Pennsylvanian Jazz

Many of the world’s greatest jazz musicians were born, raised, and performed in Pennsylvania, including the likes of Billie Holiday, Stan Getz, Tommy Dorsey, and John Coltrane. When we talk about epicenters of this musical genre, cities like New York and North Orleans first come to mind. However, Pennsylvania was an important hub for the jazz movement and remains so today.

The Dorsey Brothers, Tommy and Jimmy, became famous throughout America and beyond in jazz and big band. Tommy Dorsey was a legendary trombonist, and second only to Glenn Miller in fame. Meanwhile, Jimmy Dorsey was an accomplished saxophonist and clarinet player. Born in Schuylkill County, right at the heart of the anthracite coal region, their father was a music teacher, and encouraged them to play as often as possible. After developing a love of jazz, a relatively new music style at the time, the brothers formed their own big band in the 1930s, producing classics like “Opus One” and “I’ll Never Smile Again”.

Eleanora Fagan, or Billie Holiday as she came to be known, was born in Philadelphia in 1915. Singing at bars and clubs to make ends meet, she was discovered by a talent scout in 1933, subsequently taking the global jazz scene by storm.

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