Exhibit Looks at City's Ugly History of Slavery
Machosky, Michael, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh, well north of the Mason-Dixon line and the dominion of King Cotton, isn't a place normally associated with slavery.
But Western Pennsylvania has a long, strange and surprising history with "the peculiar institution" of slavery. The issue is illuminated at the Senator John Heinz History Center in a new exhibit: "Free at Last? Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th and 19th Centuries."
The exhibit began with this discovery of an oddly marked file, found by staff in the Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds office of Valerie McDonald Roberts.
"They discovered a folder with the word 'Negro' on it," says Vice Chancellor Robert Hill of the University of Pittsburgh. "They brought it to Valerie's attention, and she discovered that it was a transaction related to children. After digging a little more, they found that there were 55 records related to slavery. She turned them over to the history center for preservation."
Hill heard about the papers and decided to check them out.
"They're written in this flowery old penmanship, so I got a magnifying glass and went through them," Hill says. "There were famous names associated with the transactions, names that are on towns and villages and streets in Western Pennsylvania. What are these people doing involved with slavery-related activities?
"Isaac Craig owned eight slaves, and so on. I said, 'Isaac Craig? I work on Craig Street.' But I wasn't sure there was a connection. So I started learning about him and Gen. John Neville, and others, and decided that, in addition to putting the papers on display, we needed to tell the fuller story of slavery in Pittsburgh."
With help from Laurence A. Glasco, a professor at Pitt who wrote "The WPA History of the Negro in Pittsburgh," Hill assembled the exhibit. The papers are the centerpiece, but Hill was determined to flesh out the story, from a visual re-creation of the Middle Passage aboard the slave ships, to the stories of Pittsburgh's strong abolitionist communities, of whites and free blacks.
Hill found that Pittsburgh's awkward, extended transition from slavery is largely a product of Pennsylvania's Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, passed in 1780. Even the Quakers in Pennsylvania originally owned slaves, but were among the first to turn against the practice. At the time, this was a pioneering act of abolition. But it had a lot of loopholes.
"After March 1, 1780, children born of slave women couldn't be slaves for life," Hill says. "They would serve a kind of term slavery until age 28. It was 28, because when the legislation was taking shape, just like today, the lobbyists were out in force. So the slave lobby said, 'You know, these slave kids are a nuisance. They have to be fed, clothed, baby sat, and you can't get any real value out them until they're about 14. …