From Slavery to Freedo History Center Details City's Role as a Destination for Runaway Slaves

Article excerpt

What should I take?

Where will I stay?

Who can I trust?

Those are a few of the questions that may have been running through the mind of Abel Bogguess, a slave born in 1827 in Virginia, as he considered whether to make the leap from slavery to freedom.

He decided in 1843 that he would, and with members of his family Bogguess fled the plantation where he lived in Virginia, using agents of the Underground Railroad to make his way to Uniontown, then to Pittsburgh, to Butler, and finally to northern Ohio.

His story is told in "From Slavery to Freedom," a new exhibit at the Heinz History Center in the Strip District that covers more than 250 years of African-American history. The exhibit, which will remain at the History Center for the next decade, was funded by the U.S. Department of Education Underground Railroad Education and Cultural Program.

It begins with a look at life in 18th-century Africa, then presents the experience of the cramped journey on the slave ship across the Atlantic Ocean, the role of slavery in the economy of the early United States and the challenges faced by the slaves who escaped. It examines the rise of the abolitionist movement, the Civil War, reconstruction and finally, present-day life for African- Americans.

The goal of the exhibit is to connect Pittsburgh with the history of slavery and freedom, said Samuel W. Black, director of the African American Program at the Heinz History Center, who worked on developing it for more than four years.

"Our goal is, let's add something new to the story," he said at the conclusion of a tour of the multi-room exhibit. "Let's not just repeat what's already out there."

Pittsburgh was, and remains, a "destination of freedom," Mr. Black said, but the story of Pittsburgh's relationship to slavery is a complex one.

One person who embodied that complexity was Charles Avery, a white man who lived in Pittsburgh in the mid-1850s. He was an abolitionist, but he was also an owner of a textile mill, so he profited from an industry that benefited from the cotton produced by slaves in the southern United States. …