University of Pittsburgh
October 19, 2008

Pitt's "Free at Last?" Exhibition on Slavery Among Early Local Settlers of Pittsburgh Opens Oct. 25, Rewrites Western Pennsylvania History

Fifty-five slavery-related records discovered in the Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds Office form core of show at the Heinz History Center, lead to additional findings
Contact: 

Sharon Blake

412-624-4364

Cell: 412-277-6926

PITTSBURGH-A pathbreaking exhibition, "Free at Last? Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th and 19th Centuries," writes a new chapter in the early history of race relations in this region. It explores in depth for the first time the little-known fact that slavery persisted in Western Pennsylvania through the years directly preceding the Civil War.

"Free at Last?" was created by the University of Pittsburgh in partnership with the Senator John Heinz History Center in observance of the 250th anniversary of the founding of Pittsburgh and the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in the United States. It centers on 55 handwritten records discovered last year and dating from 1792 to 1857 that document this area's decades-long involvement with Black slavery and indentured servitude.

The exhibition will be on display from Oct. 25, 2008, through April 5, 2009, in the McGuinn Gallery of the Senator John Heinz History Center, 1212 Smallman St., Strip District. A by-invitation opening reception will take place on Friday, Oct. 24.

The original slavery-related documents were discovered in 2007 by staff in the Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds Office. They were later transferred to the Heinz History Center by then-Recorder of Deeds Valerie McDonald Roberts, a graduate of Pitt's School of Arts and Sciences and School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. The discovery by Roberts, now manager of the County Department of Real Estate, spurred Pitt Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Robert Hill to investigate further.

"These and other slavery-related records shouted out from their aged pages the need to be publicly inspected," said Hill, executive-in-charge of the exhibition. "They suggested to me that the much bigger story must be told of how and why slavery came to Western Pennsylvania, the locus of the 55 records and the focus of the exhibition. And equally important were the means by which slavery in this region was legally ended and the extent to which slavery and the effects of slavery persisted."

Subsequent research led to finding:

o a copy of the Westmoreland County Slave Registry, 1780-1782 (During those years, Pittsburgh was part of Westmoreland County, and would continue to be so until 1787);

o a copy of the Registry of the Children of Slaves in Allegheny County, 1789-1813; and

o census data that report some of this region's most prominent 18th-and 19th-century citizens included slaveholders and nonslaveholders alike.

The 55 papers showcased in the exhibition include a bill of sale between two Blacks in which a husband purchased his wife in order to free her, a record of 36 Blacks who were transported to Pittsburgh and to freedom from Louisiana, a paper concerning a free Black who was wrongly imprisoned as a fugitive slave, and a 22-year indentureship involving a 6-year-old child.

The exhibition begins by taking visitors through a simulated slave ship and showing the terror and powerlessness experienced by African slaves during their Middle Passage from Africa to America. It traces the region's history from the establishment of Fort Pitt in 1758, to 1780-when Pennsylvania became the first state to enact a law for the gradual abolition of slavery, replacing it with a form of term-slavery known as indentured servitude-to the decades leading up to the Civil War. Throughout most of this period, there was a constant fear of recapture felt by fugitive slaves and the unending insecurity felt by free Blacks, who were still vulnerable to being kidnapped and sold into slavery.

"Free at Last?" contains lifelike wax figures of fugitive slaves as well as the gripping tales of their successful escapes to freedom.

Among the stories are those of:

o Henry Highland Garnet, who, on the pretext of attending a funeral, traveled to

Pennsylvania by wagon and foot with his family of 10. He became president of Pittsburgh's Avery College and founded the city's first Black Presbyterian church, the 140-year-old Grace Memorial; and

o Ellen and William Craft, a married couple, who executed a successful plan to disguise the light-complexioned mulatto Ellen as a sickly White gentleman accompanied by "his" manservant (William). Years later, their great- granddaughter, also named Ellen Craft, lived in Pittsburgh and married Pitt Arts and Sciences alumnus Donald Dammond, the nephew of 1893 Pitt School of Engineering alumnus William Hunter Dammond, the first Black graduate of the University of Pittsburgh.

The exhibition also includes biographies of prominent slaveholding and nonslaveholding Pittsburghers, descriptions of leading Black and White abolitionists, never-before-exhibited vintage artifacts from the John L. Ford Collection, and the earliest-known visual representation of the city and its dwellings-a George Beck painting from the holdings of the Pitt Library System that dates back to the first decade of the 19th century.

Pitt offers its own expertise on the subject of slavery in this region with three esteemed Pitt faculty members' books on display within the exhibition: "The WPA History of the Negro in Pittsburgh" (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004), edited by history professor Laurence A. Glasco, historical director of the exhibition and winner of the 2008 Pitt African American Alumni Council Sankofa Award; "The Slave Ship: A Human History" (Viking, 2007) by history professor Marcus Rediker, chair of the department and recipient of the $50,000 George Washington Prize in 2008; and "From Slavery to Freedom" (New York University Press, 1999) by Seymour Drescher, University Professor of History and Sociology and winner of the 2003 Frederick Douglass Book Prize.

Pitt's Office of Public Affairs created the exhibition with support from the Office of the Chancellor and in partnership with the Senator John Heinz History Center. The Heinz History Center, the largest history museum in Pennsylvania, is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.

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10/20/08/tmw

Highlights of "Free at Last?" Exhibition

Slave Ship

"Free at Last? Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th and 19th Centuries" begins as slavery itself in the New World did-with the slave ship. The exhibition features a simulated slave ship complete with artifacts and personal accounts of the difficult voyage across the Atlantic. The slave ship served as the threshold to slavery, both in terms of transport and as a scene of the institution's brutality. Slaves lay chained together with barely enough room to move. Disease and pestilence ravaged the cargo holds, and ship crews wantonly abused, raped, and tortured many of their captives. At the same time, Africans of various languages and tribes shared a common hardship, a commiseration still present in African American spirituals and culture.

Pittsburgh Slave Registries and Census Data

The exhibition focuses on documents dating from 1780 to 1857 that portray the scope of Black slavery and indentured servitude in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. These documents break down the collective term "slaves" into such individual names and stories as the following: In 1841, Emanual Jackson Sr. purchased his 21-year-old son, Emanual, for $800 then freed him; two witnesses testified in 1839 that William Johnson, 22, was a "free man of colour"; and John and Mary Brady granted Stephen, a 22-year-old slave, his freedom in 1837 after inheriting him from Mary's late father.

Wax Figures and Great Escapes

As society dragged its heels on abolition, thousands of slaves took action by escaping, risking severe punishment or death if caught. "Free at Last?" features wax re-creations of some notable escapes, among them: A 14-year-old girl, who was "fairer than a mulatto" and owned by the Drennen family of Arkansas, escaped during the family's stay in Pittsburgh's elegant Monongahela House hotel-after emptying the family's trunk and filling it with dirty laundry, the young girl disappeared, possibly with the aid of hotel "rescuers" who helped slaves passing through the city escape; Henry "Box" Brown "mailed" himself to freedom; and well-known abolitionist Frederick Douglass donned a sailor uniform and borrowed a friend's protection papers and fled Baltimore by train and steamboat to Philadelphia and then to meet his free wife in New York City. But the escapees' hard-won freedom was tentative. After the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required runaway slaves to be returned to their owners, not even the prominent Douglass was safe.

Abolitionists in Pittsburgh

A large, free town less than 100 miles from the slaveholding states of Maryland and Virginia, Pittsburgh hosted a thriving abolitionist movement that crossed racial, gender, and class boundaries. "Free at Last?" features biographies of several of these people, including the Rev. Lewis Woodson, considered the father of Black Nationalism. Woodson moved to Pittsburgh in 1831 and became a well-known activist, teacher, and preacher at the Hill District's Bethel AME Church, which is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. Another abolitionist was the Rev. Charles Avery, a wealthy White businessman who viewed education as the key to Black advancement. He established in Allegheny City (now the North Side) what would become Avery College, an affordable school for Black men and women. Famous Pittsburgh abolitionists George Vashon and Henry Highland Garnet-whose biographies also are featured in the exhibition-would serve as presidents of the college.

The Civil War and Slavery

The exhibition outlines the prominence of the slavery issue leading up to and during the Civil War. The Southern states began seceding after Abraham Lincoln of the abolitionist Republican Party won the presidency, leading to war in April 1861. Originally dedicated to preserving the Union, Lincoln freed slaves in 10 seceding Confederate states in 1863, making abolition, the preeminent social issue of the 1850s, a central aim of the Civil War. Following the Union victory, Constitutional amendments sought to ensure that freedom-only to be undercut by the end of Reconstruction. "Free at Last?" explores the promise of emancipation, the struggle to maintain that freedom, and the ways in which African Americans have used it to the benefit of their community and the nation.

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