Sunday, July 20, 2014

Slave Fugitives: Peter and Vina Still

The story of Peter and Vina Still is one of patience.  When Peter was a boy, 1804, his father bought himself out of slavery, and went north,  He advised his wife to follow.  This she did, with their four children, making their way to New Jersey to meet her husband.  However slave trackers tracked her down and she was returned to slavery.  She was determined to try again, and this time took only her two daughters, leaving her two sons.  She gained her freedom, but her boys would have to wait. 
Their owner quickly sold them to Kentucky, so their parents could not find them.  They went through several experiences with bad owners or overseers.  One time Peter was beaten by a man who had hired him out.  The owner was very angry and told the man he could not damage his property.  They went through several owners, and the brothers were separated for a time and later reunited.
Peter’s brother, Levin, decided to wed; but his owner did not like his choice.  He had chosen a woman from another plantation.  Babies went with the mother, and would be the slaves of the mother’s owner.  Levin’s master hoped to breed him with women from his own plantation.  Levin wed anyway, and was severely beaten—317 lashes on his bare back.  This beating destroyed his health.  He was an old man after this, and shortly passed away.
Peter decided to follow his own heart.  He did not get his master’s permission, but wed a girl off the plantation, Vina, while his master was away.  His master was angry when he heard the news, but did not beat Peter.  Peter constructed a little house for them.  However Peter was reminded of his status as a slave.  His wife was struck trying to beat off a rapist.  She was seriously injured but recovered.  One day his eight year old boy arrived late for work as he had a tooth ache.  The cure from the overseer was 100 lashes. 
Peter was hired out to work in a store.  The store owners paid him more than he had to pay his master.    He also did other extra jobs, and slowly accumulated money.  He approached the Friedmans (store owners) with the idea of their buying him, and then his buying his freedom from them.  They were agreeable, but Peter’s owner would not sell.  However, one day he wanted to buy a young slave, and needed money fast.  He was able to sell Peter for $500.  He then gave the $300 he had earned to the Friedmans, and continued working for them, keeping all the money he earned.  He earned his freedom in this way.  The Friedmans sold their store, one brother headed West to the gold rush.  The other brother, Isaac, went with Peter north.  They arrived in Cincinnati and Peter exclaimed, “I’m free! I’m free!.  This is free ground!  The water runs free!  The wind blows free!  I am a slave no more!”
Then began Peter’s search for his family.  He doubted his parents were still alive.  After his search was fruitless for two days, someone suggested he visit the Pennsylvania anti-slavery society in Philadelphia.  This he did. 
When he arrived he told his story to a young Black man.  Peter called himself Peter Friedman, taking the name of his last owner.  However when he finished his story, the man said, “Suppose I should tell you that I am your brother?”   His name was William Still, a brother that had been born to his parents after they escaped slavery.  He reunited with his two sisters.  He also reunited with many siblings he did not know he had; five brothers and three sisters in all.  His father had passed away.  However his mother was living on a farm in new jersey, 25 miles from Philadelphia. 
Upon seeing Peter she cried, “O Lord, how long have I prayed to see you!”  They both held each other crying in happiness.  William was part of the Under Ground Railroad.  However he had no advice for Peter in rescuing his wife.  He and his old friend had a plan. 
Peter returned to Tuscumbia, saying he was still Isaac’s slave.  He had returned to make money for Mr. Friedman.  He visited his wife, but could not free her.  He took her cape saying he would try to earn money for her freedom.  If a rescuer came, he would have her cape as proof he was for real. 
Seth Concklin had become a friend, and took the cape.  He hated slavery.  He agreed to take Vina and her children by pretending to be their master, if she could get away.  They made it away and were headed north, however storms forced them to stop in Indiana, where they were recaptured by slave hunters.  Concklin insisted on going with them, first peacefully, but then he was arrested and jailed for slave theft.  He was killed by drowning (probably knocked off the boat while chained for helping slaves) on the way back to the south. 
Peter was heartbroken.  The owner of the slaves said, I will sell them for $5000 ($100,000 today) or send them south where you will never find them. 
Peter went to the speaking tour, raising money as he went and talking against slavery.  Some rich people helped him.  He finally raised the money, and was able to purchase his wife.  They were reunited New Year’s Eve 1854.

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