Monday, August 10, 2009

Another Unusual Family Reunion

On August 1, 1850, a man named Peter Friedman entered the office of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia. Upon entering he was directed to William Still, who served as secretary of the organization. Still's duties at the time included everything from interviewing fugitives and free slaves to see how they could be assisted, to keeping tabs on the society's expenses. No one could know that Still would one day be known as the "Father of the Underground Railroad."

Friedman had traveled long and far to make it to Philadelphia. He had left northern Alabama after buying his freedom, and now he wanted help in getting his wife and children to freedom. Still noticed immediately that Friedman was a number of years older than himself, but Still also took note of Friedman's sincerity and straightforward manner.

During the conversation Friedman related his life story to Still. He explained that he was separated from his family at about ten years of age and that he had spent most of his life serving under Kentucky and Alabama masters. Friedman told Still that he was next to oldest of four brothers and sisters. His father had bought his own freedom, but he and his mother and siblings had had to remain in slavery. Friedman explained to Still that he didn't know his real last name, or even exactly where he had been born in Maryland.

Still was intrigued and wanted to know more about this man, so he prodded Friedman to think of some additional information that might help him. Peter recalled that his father's name was Levin, and that he had gone north when Peter was about six years old. His mother Sidney had tried to escape with the children about a year later, but all had been captured before making it to the free states. Their owner, Saunders Griffin, infuriated that they had tried to run away, sold Peter and his brother, Levin Jr. to a man in Kentucky, but before leaving for his new homeland Peter's grandmother told him to never forget the name of his father and mother; Levin and Sidney. Friedman also explained that Levin Jr. had been killed by a cruel master when he was 33 years old.

William Still suddenly felt odd because his own father and mother's names had been Levin and Sidney too. Mother Sidney had since changed her name to Charity, but William Still had grown up hearing stories about his much older brothers Peter and Levin Jr., and finally when Friedman gave the names of his two sisters, William knew this was his brother that he had never met or knew. William said, "I could see in the face of new found brother the likeness of my mother. My feelings were unutterable." Friedman had no clue what Still had just realized until William asked him, "Suppose I should tell you that I am your brother?" Peter and William Still's father, Levin, Sr. had changed the family name from Steel to Still when he bought his freedom, and he and Sidney/Charity had gone on to have thirteen other children in the years since Peter and Levin were sold. William explained that Levin Sr. had died several years earlier, but that their mother was still alive and well.

The next day William Still took his formerly long lost brother Peter Friedman to meet a number of siblings Peter never knew he had in the Philadelphia and New Jersey area, and then finally to see his mother. When they met Charity reached up and felt Peter's face, a face she hadn't seen in almost 40 years. They shared a warm embrace and both shed tears of happiness.

Peter was surprised and delighted by his good fortune at finding family he either never knew he had or thought he would never see again, but he wanted to do something to retrieve his own wife and children still held in slavery in Alabama. Would he see them again? Could they be brought to freedom too?

To be continued...

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