As the celebratory sun sets on Pittsburgh’s 250th anniversary, an exhibit has opened at the Heinz History Center that shows an area of shadow older than the city itself: slavery. Pittsburgh’s membership in the league of heroic Northern cities that helped with the Underground Railroad remains, but without its pristine, stainless status. Instead, western Pennsylvania joins the complex mosaic of early America as a place where eradication of the “peculiar institution” was uneven, political and contradictory.
The information that people in this region held slaves surfaced when one of Valerie McDonald-Roberts’s staff in the Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds office found a reference to “Negro” in an 1816 property record. In all, 56 such records were found, and news stories followed. When University of Pittsburgh Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Robert Hill learned of the papers, he pored over them, deciphering the antique texts with a magnifying glass. Believing the matter called for a larger treatment, he set to work creating the exhibit “Free at Last? Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th and 19th Centuries”, which runs through April 5 .
It might be tempting to consider the exhibit to be a perfect item for Black History Month, but such a mindset would miss its nuance and power. This is part of the story of early Pittsburgh and its people, black and white. When troops advanced to find an abandoned Fort Duquesne, there were free blacks and slaves among that militia. And in the years to come, there were black and white abolitionists, just as there were black slaves and white indentured servants.
The central state legislation changing the situation was the 1780 Gradual Abolition of Slavery Act. In it, any child born after March 1 of that year could not be a slave for life. The slave lobby, however, argued successfully that the slaves they held had required expense and care for the first 14 years of their lives, and that the owners should be compensated by an equal number of years of labor, meaning young slaves remained indentured until the age of 28.
The names of slaveholders—Neville, Craig and Beltzhoover—jump out as familiar, just as do the names of some abolitionists. Hugh Henry Brackenridge founded the University of Pittsburgh and traveled to Kentucky to find a slave woman who had been kidnapped and free her. Again, though, the portrait is mixed: of the 21 original trustees of the university at its founding in 1787, eight owned slaves.
Only four organizations that existed then exist now, the University of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Allegheny County and Westmoreland County, and the exhibit examines their roles. For example, The Pittsburgh Gazette, as it was known, ran ads for runaway slaves well into the 1800s before disallowing them.
The exhibit has tales of escape—one man mailed himself to freedom in a box—and it tells the stories of the region’s early black leaders, including names such as Vashon, Peck and Woodson. It tells the story of abolitionist Martin Delany, Pittsburgh’s first black doctor, and pastor of the area’s first black church, Bethel AME, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year.
A final anniversary that drove Hill to produce the exhibit is the prohibition of the slave trade in 1808. The infamous Middle Passage was brought to life by award-winning writer and Pitt professor Marcus Rediker in his 2007 book “Slave Ship.” There is much more, including Pittsburgh’s key role in creating the Republican Party. It adds up to a fascinating display showing that the history of Pittsburgh is the history of America.