Black History Month Program

On February 27, 2020, the Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County presented “Less Known Stories of African Americans in Indiana County.”  The program was a collaborative effort between the Indiana County NAACP and the Blairsville Underground Railroad History Center.  The program began with some brief remarks by Mr. Jonathan Bogert, the Executive Director of the Historical Society, followed by an Address from Dr. Carolyn Princes, the President of the Indiana County NAACP.

The program continued with some comments by Dr. Lori Woods from St. Francis University who presented “Student reflections of the Blairsville Underground Railroad History Center.”  On February 8, 2020 students from St. Francis University visited the Blairsville Underground History Center for an interactive tour.  Following their visit, the students wrote about their experience.  The students found the tour to be very moving, and also an important aspect of our history that more people should learn about and understand.  This understanding of history helps us to improve society today and move in a positive direction.

Denise Jennings-Doyle, President and co-founder of the Blairsville Underground Railroad History Center, introduced two historical figures who visited and told their story of their life in Indiana County.

Anthony Hollingsworth was a 12-year-old freedom seeker from Virginia, was seized by slave hunters on the Simpson Farm, near Homer City.  He was bound to a horse and taken to the Indiana House hotel at Philadelphia and Sixth Streets.  There was a large crowd that gathered to protest his capture and stormed the hotel to free him.  Dr. Robert Mitchell and newspaper editor James Moorhead, ardent abolitionists, intercepted the enraged citizens and persuaded them to allow the courts to decide the young man’s fate.  The following day, Judge Thomas White asked the slave catchers to produce written evidence that slavery existed in Virginia; when they did not, Judge White set Hollingsworth free.  Several young men hoisted Hollingsworth onto their shoulders and paraded him through the streets.

Hollingsworth settled in Stratford, Ontario, where he was employed, according to the 1863 County of Perth Gazetteer, as a “hairdresser and shampooner.”  Hollingsworth never forgot the kindness and support he was shown by the local residents.  He mailed a letter to Dr. Mitchell, who briefly gave Hollingsworth shelter on his property near Diamondville, thanking him and the “good folkes” of Indiana County for their assistance.

Jane Brunson Johnston, was the wife of Lewis Johnston.  Together they were conductors in Blairsville and Allegheny City (North Pittsburgh), PA.   It’s believed they transported freedom seekers between Blairsville and Hollidaysburg.  Freedom seeker Richard Newman was living with the Johnston family on West Campbell Street in Blairsville when his attempted kidnapping occurred on April 1, 1858.  The Johnstons raised six children.  Their son Lewis Johnston, Jr. became the first black Covenanter Presbyterian preacher in Pennsylvania.

The evening concluded with musical selections by Anthony Frazier – singing and providing a history behind “Wade in the Water” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.”  Patti Holmes also provided musical selections of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “The Greatest Love of All.”  Audience members were encouraged to join in singing with the performers and the Armory was filled with song.

Coming up in March the Society is hosting two programs.  The first will be an Irish Sing-a-long held on March 20, 2020 from 6-8PM in the Clark House.  If you love traditional Irish sing-a-long songs or find yourself singing classic tunes your grandparents sang for you, then you are going to enjoy the Irish Sing-a-long.  We will play and sing around the piano in the Historic Clark House.  Musical guests Allen Krynicky, Mike Busija, Scott Neuroh, Ken Black, Hazel Johnston, and Bruce Jenkins, will lead you in singing Irish tunes to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, as well as classic favorites from the 30s and 40s.  This event is an OPEN FUNDRAISER with no entrance fee or ticket cost, but donations will be gratefully accepted, with all the proceeds from this event going directly toward repairs needed for the Chickering Square Grand piano that was recently donated to the Historical Society.  For more information, or to donate to the Piano Fund, call 724-463-9600.

Our second event will be held on Sunday March 29, 2020 – the 2nd Annual National Vietnam War Veterans Day Program.  Doors will open at 5:30 PM with the program beginning at 6:00 PM.  The event will feature guest speakers, music of the era, and a historical display relating to “The Wall That Heals.”  Commemorative pins will be awarded to Vietnam Veterans by Christina Lonigro.  Refreshments and hors d’oeuvres will follow the program.  For more information and reservations please call 724-463-9600.  This event is sponsored by: The American Legion Auxiliary Post 141, the VFW Post 1989, the American Legion Post 141, and the Indiana County Historical Society.

Finally join us on Saturday April 4, 2020 at 7:00 pm in the Armory for our 3rd Annual Spring Swing.  Dress to the nines and put on your dancing shoes, it’s time to Swing!  Don’t know how? No problem! Lessons begin at 7:00pm, the dance will follow at 7:30pm.  Maybe this year we’ll try a little West Coast swing to spice things up a bit.  Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door, and are available at the HGSIC or through Crisp Entertainment. Call 724-463-9600 for more information.

Anti-Slavery Movement and the Trial of Anthony Hollingsworth

The Antislavery Movement in some respects put Indiana County on the map, and made it a safe haven for runaway slaves. The first formally organized antislavery society came into existence sometime around 1837. Antislavery supporters included Reverend David Blair, Joseph Campbell, Samuel Henry Thompson, and Dr. Robert Mitchell. Aside from the County society, there were also local antislavery societies including one in Center Township to which membership was open to “any person not being a slaveholder and consenting to the principles of this constitution.”

To be fair, there were some proslavery advocates in Indiana County as well. The most prominent being David Ralston, who even as late as 1862 maintained his view by publishing “A Bible View of Slavery,” in which he defended slavery on a basis of Bible arguments.

Because of the majority in favor of Anti-Slavery, Indiana County became a safe-haven for slaves attempting to flee their owners. Take for example the three young men who made their way to Indiana County from Virginia in April of 1845. They were aided by a small band of anti-slavery leaders who were businessmen from Indiana and Blairsville. They hid and fed the boys for two months.

Hollingsworth was sheltered and employed by James Simpson, to help on his farm. In June, one of the boys, 12-year-old Anthony Hollingsworth, was captured, bound to a horse and taken to the old Indiana House Hotel, which was operated by David Ralston, who had strong proslavery views and was also sheriff of the county. It was at the Hotel that he awaited his return to slavery in Virginia under his master, Garrett Van Metre.

Being a small town, word traveled quickly through Indiana, especially among the anti-slavery activists, and an angry mob surrounded the hotel, threatening to burn the men out to free the young boy.

Dr. Mitchell calmed the crowd, in part by promising them that Hollingsworth would be protected by the law. William Banks, a lawyer, was to present a writ of habeas corpus the following morning.

dr. robert mitchell
Dr. Robert Mitchell

In the morning, Judge Thomas White, another anti-slavery activist, took to the bench to hear the case. A steady stream of people came through the doors. In front of Judge White sat Anthony Hollingsworth, in the custody of the sheriff, and Van Metre with his friends, on one side. On the other sat William Banks and Dr. Mitchell flanked by their co-antislavery members. Judge White carefully reviewing the case, he granted the petition, ordering Anthony Hollingsworth freed. After this ruling a great roar came over the crowded courtroom.

This was not the first interaction between Van Metre and Mitchell. Mitchell was sued for harboring a fugitive slave named Jared Harris. This case was tried in the United States circuit court at Pittsburgh before Judge Grier. Judge Grier was a strong proslavery man, as could be seen in his charge to the jury. Dr. Mitchell was convicted, and a part of the pine forest, near present day Diamondville, in which the slaves found shelter, was sold at sheriff’s sale to defray the cost of the $10,000 suit.

*Van Metre v. Mitchell, 28 F. Cas. 1036 (Cir. Ct. W.D.PA 1853).

Absalom Hazlett: Abolitionist from Indiana County

Absalom Hazlett

Absalom Hazlett was born near Devil’s Elbow, Green Township, Indiana County, PA in September 1837.  Before leaving to go to Kansas with his brother John in 1857 he steals some overcoats from the lounge of the American Hotel on Philadelphia Street, but never appears for trial.  In 1858, Hazlett meets the infamous John Brown and is designated a lieutenant in John Brown’s command not long after.  This is when Hazlett learns of Brown’s plan to raid Harper’s Ferry.  Over the next few months Hazlett participates in many different raids across the country, leading up to October 16-18, 1859 when the raid on Harper’s Ferry occurred.  Hazlett was arrested in Newville, PA on October 22, 1859 and thrown into jail at Carlisle, but gives the authorities his alias, William H. Harrison.  In the Winter of 1860 the prosecuting attorney for the trial against Hazlett for his involvement in the raid of Harper’s Ferry, writes to the Indiana, PA Postmaster seeking locals who could identify Hazlett, but correspondence suggests that “the feeling in some places in Pennsylvania on these questions.” might hinder finding someone to identify Hazlett.

On February 16, 1860, Absalom Hazlett was convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged on Friday, March 16, 1860 between 10am and 2pm.  There were several petitions for clemency from Indiana County and Carlisle as well as ones form the Senate and House of Pennsylvania.  There were raids to free Hazlett by did not succeed.  In correspondence with Rebecca B. Spring of the Raritan Bay Union, a communitary society in New Jersey, Hazelett tells her “I am willing to die in the cause of liberty; if I had ten thousand lives, I would willingly lay them all down for the same cause. My death will do more good than if I had lived.”  On March 16, 1859, Hazlett is hung at Charles Town, Virginia
and dies quickly and Mrs. Spring removes his body to New Jersey.  In 1899, the body is disinterred and taken to New York to be buried with John Brown and the other raiders.  Absalom Hazlett was 22 years old when he died.