'From Slavery to Freedom' on Display at History Center

Article excerpt

Confederate Gen. Thomas Fenwick Drayton knew what he was fighting for during the Civil War. At the start of the conflict, he owned more than 100 slaves who toiled at his plantation on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, and he was battling to keep them in bondage.

A wall-sized photo at the Heinz History Center shows a dozen of Drayton's slaves posing with Union troops who freed them, not as human beings, but as "contraband" useful to the Southern secession effort. The image, taken by photographer Henry P. Moore, is part of the "From Slavery to Freedom" long-term exhibit that opened Nov. 30 at the museum in Pittsburgh's Strip District. The long-term show is part of the history center's commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

"I hope people will walk away from this exhibit with a greater understanding of the role slavery played in building America," curator Samuel W. Black said. "They also should understand the trauma that slavery caused in the black experience." Mr. Black is director of the African-American programs at the Heinz History Center.

Items and documents on display include traditional tools and musical instruments like those that Africans would have used on their home continent. It concludes with images of modern-day African immigrants who have chosen to make their lives and careers in Western Pennsylvania.

"From Slavery to Freedom" focuses on the African-American experience in and around Pittsburgh, but it relates an international story.

Visitors enter the exhibit through a re-creation of the hold of a slave ship. They were large cargo vessels converted to carry as many as 1,000 human beings in a minimum of space. An estimated 12 million men, women and children were transported, most often in chains, across the Atlantic to the Americas in such vessels. While the museum space is gloomy, it cannot reproduce the noise and smells aboard those crowded ships.

One of the first items visitors see is a four-pronged neck collar from what is now Ghana. It was used to restrain and punish people recently captured and brought to a coastal slave-trading center. Nearby is a pair of child-sized shackles. They contain small pieces of metal that would rattle whenever a young wearer moved.

Owners of sugar plantations in the Caribbean were among the early and major users of slave labor.

J.P. Tudway, the mayor of Wells, England, had his name engraved on brass shackles used on his family's 1,000 acre plantation in Antigua.

Typical of other items used to control rebellious slaves are an 18th century Portuguese pistol and an overseer's leather whip.

Abolition of slavery came early but slowly to Pennsylvania. The state's 1780 "Act for Gradual Abolition of Slavery" did not free anyone already in bondage, but the children of slaves born after the law's adoption became free after 28 years of indentured service.

John McKee, for whose family McKeesport is named, bought the indenture of a 14-year-old girl named "Kut" on Sept. 24, 1793. The terms of the deal are described in a handwritten document originally filed at the Allegheny County Courthouse and now on display at the history center.

The teenager, the daughter of a slave, was to work for McKee for the next 12 years and six months. …