The Next Page: A People's History of Pittsburgh (Selected shorts)
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As Pittsburgh prepares to commemorate the 250th anniversary of its naming next year, it is appropriate to remember some of the great figures of Pittsburgh's past that deserve greater recognition than is generally accorded them.
Over the past three years, I have been writing a history of Pittsburgh, in addition to teaching many classes in labor history and Pittsburgh history at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Many fascinating Pittsburgh characters have emerged from my research that are little known to the general public.
While Carnegie, Frick and Mellon are names that are well known and are carved in marble on buildings and grace the names of institutions that continue to influence Pittsburgh, there are many other figures whose contributions and courage deserve to be celebrated in our schools and preserved in our collective memory.
Here are an initial half-dozen:
Aliquippa, clan-mother of the Seneca, was an important representative of Iroquois power at the Forks of the Ohio.
A young woman in 1701, she probably visited William Penn in New Castle, Delaware, before his final parting from Pennsylvania. Conrad Weiser, envoy of the Pennsylvania colony, twice met with Aliquippa in 1748 while visiting the Forks to secure a treaty with the western tribes. "We dined in a Seneka Town, where an old Seneka Woman Reigns with great Authority."
She later came to Logstown and asked Weiser for "a cask of powder and some small shot to enable her to send out the Indian boys to kill turkeys & other fowls for her, whilst the men are gone to war against the French, that they might not be starved."
Celeron, commander of the French expedition in 1749, wrote: "I re-embarked and visited the village which is called the Written Rock. The Iroquois inhabit this place, and it is an old woman of this nation who governs it. She regards herself as sovereign. She is entirely devoted to the English." In 1752, the Virginia Commissioners visited Aliquippa's Town "with colors flying."
"The company then went on shore to wait on the Queen, who welcomed them and presented them with a string of Wampum to clear their way to Logstown. She gave them a fine dish of fish to carry with them, and had some victuals set, which they all ate of. The commissioners presented the Queen with a brass kettle, tobacco and some other trifles and took their leave."
In 1753, Christopher Gist and George Washington, cold, exhausted and wet after their plunge into the frigid Allegheny, made their way to the mouth of Turtle Creek. There Washington learned that Queen Aliquippa was offended because he had gone to see the French without first coming to see her. Washington "went up three Miles to the Mouth of the Youghiogheny River to visit Queen Aliquippa" -- today, Highland Grove Park, McKeesport -- "who had expressed great concern that we passed her in going to the Fort. I made her a present of a match-coat and a bottle of rum, which latter was thought much the better present of the two."
Aliquippa died shortly after the British defeat at Fort Necessity.
John Chapman, legendary as the tree-planting Johnny Appleseed, was a real person with a Pittsburgh connection.
One charming version has John arriving in Pittsburgh in the midst of the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, living on the top of Grant's Hill, working in a local shipyard, tending the remaining apple trees of the King's Orchard outside the ruins of Fort Pitt and providing "a way-station for the stranger in want."
It was in Pittsburgh that Chapman discovered his calling to be Johnny Appleseed.
Martin Delany came to Pittsburgh in 1831 at the age of 19. He founded here the first black newspaper west of the Alleghenies, The Mystery, whose masthead declared: "Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not who would be free, themselves must strike the first blow!" When finances forced his paper to close, he joined Frederick Douglas as co-editor of the The North Star.
The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, Sept. 18, 1850, drove many in Pittsburgh to acts of resistance. On Sept. 30, 1850, a massive protest meeting was held in the Allegheny City market-house. Delany declared his intention to resist. "My house is my castle; in that castle are none but my wife and my children, as free as the angels of heavens, and whose liberty is as sacred as the pillars of God. If any man approaches that house in search of a slave ... and I do not lay him a lifeless corpse at my feet, I hope the grave may refuse my body a resting place and righteous Heaven my spirit a home. Oh No! He cannot enter my house and we both live."
With medical training from several of Pittsburgh's finest white doctors, Delany was admitted to Harvard, but the hostility of white students forced his expulsion. Returning to Pittsburgh in 1851, he published the treatise that gave him the title "Father of Black Nationalism." His "Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered" was a declaration of racial pride and a call for emigration out of the United States.
Delany moved his family to Canada and helped John Brown convene an anti-slavery convention. When the Harper's Ferry raid transpired, however, Delany, was leading an expedition to present-day Nigeria where in 1859 he negotiated land for a settlement. Upon his return to the United States, the Civil War placed the issue of slavery squarely on the nation's agenda. Delany threw himself into the recruitment of black soldiers and was commissioned the first black officer in the U.S. Army by President Abraham Lincoln himself.
Crystal Eastman, a graduate of Vassar with a masters from Columbia, and a law degree from New York University, came to Pittsburgh at the age of 26 in 1907. Part of the famous Pittsburgh Survey, she investigated industrial accidents that occurred in Allegheny County during 1906-07.
Her study of 526 workplace deaths in a 12-month span analyzed the hazards of various occupations; detailed the profound impact that deaths and injuries had on workers' families; highlighted the inadequacy of worker protection law; and exposed the pitiful levels of compensation paid for worker death and injury. Her classic "Work Accidents and the Law" is one of the most important contributions to the cause of worker health and safety produced in the United States.
She campaigned against World War I and, with social worker Jane Addams, founded the Woman's Peace Party. She was also a founding board member of the American Civil Liberties Union. With three other women she wrote the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923.
What distinguished Crystal Eastman as a safety researcher is the rigorous and detailed collection of data combined with a deep compassion for the plight of the worker and the family who faced the consequences of industrial death and injury. "If we were to regard the year's industrial fatalities in Allegheny County as one overwhelming disaster in which the dead numbered 526, its most appalling feature would be that it fell exclusively upon workers, breadwinners. Among those killed there were no aged helpless persons, no idle merry-makers, no irresponsible children. The people who perished were of those upon whom the world leans."
On Aug. 26, 1919, Fannie Sellins, organizer for the United Mine Workers, was brutally murdered by Coal and Iron Police outside a mine entry in Natrona Heights when she attempted to intervene in the beating of a picketer. Sellins was a garment worker and a widowed mother of four who became union leader and negotiator for 400 women locked out of a St. Louis garment factory.
Sellins, born Fannie Mooney, came to Pittsburgh in 1913 and joined a UMW drive in West Virginia. She described her work as the distribution of "clothing and food to starving women and babies, to assist poverty stricken mothers and bring children into the world, and to minister to the sick and close the eyes of the dying."
Arrested for defying an anti-union injunction in Colliers, W. Va., Fannie spoke out: "I am free and I have a right to walk or talk any place in this country as long as I obey the law. I have done nothing wrong. The only wrong they can say I've done is to take shoes to the little children in Colliers. And when I think of their bare little feet, blue with the cruel blasts of winter, it makes me determined that if it be wrong to put shoes upon those little feet, then I will continue to do wrong as long as I have hands and feet to crawl to Colliers."
Freed through the intervention of President Woodrow Wilson, she returned to Pittsburgh and was hired by Phil Murray onto the staff of UMW. In 1919, Sellins was assigned to the Allegheny Valley to direct picketing for striking miners at Allegheny Coal and Coke. She came upon guards beating a picketing miner, Joseph Starzelski.
When Sellins remonstrated, the guards turned on her. The autopsy describes two bullets to the head, one apparently from behind and the other from the front, as well as a depressed fracture running from her left eye to above her right ear.
Fannie Sellins' funeral was held in St. Peter's Church, New Kensington, on Aug. 29, 1919. The funeral cortege that accompanied the bodies of Sellins and Starzelski was said to be the largest in the town's history. The mineworkers erected a beautiful memorial at her grave in Arnold.
Maxo Vanka was an extraordinary painter with an amazing life. Two sojourns in 1937 and 1941 in Millvale produced one of the most expressive works of immigrant art in America.
The murals that fill the Croatian church of St. Nicholas encompass in one magnificent ensemble both mystical religious aspirations and horrifying depictions of war and injustice. Rich in symbolism and imagery, the murals provide a powerful expression of religious spirituality as well as a profound social commentary.
Maxo Vanka was born in 1889, the illegitimate child of high Austro-Hungarian imperial nobility. Raised by a peasant woman, his education was sponsored in Zagreb and then in 1914 at the Royal Academy of Beaux Arts in Brussels, where he witnessed the horrors of the war at close hand during the German invasion. He married an American and came to New York in 1934.
In March 1937, Vanka came to Millvale to meet Father Albert Zagar, who wanted murals for the stark white walls of the new church (the original one burned down in 1921). Vanka covered the church with 22 murals, starting with the dominating figure over the altar, Mary Queen of Croatia, a forceful strong-shouldered peasant queen with worker's hands holding her son who carries grapes and wheat. Opposite Vanka's version of the Pieta, Mary holding her dead son brought down from the cross, is the painting "The Immigrant Mother Raises Her Son for Industry."
In the back of the church, contrasting murals depict the simple meal of the Croatian family with the ghostly figure of Christ blessing their bread and soup, with the feast spread out before the Capitalist -- a banker with monocle and top-hat waited on by a Negro servant -- while a poor man begs for crumbs at the foot of his table.
First Published November 25, 2007 4:50 am