Pittsburgh's Black History Comes into Focus
Did you know that when the General Assembly was petitioned in 1788 to form
Allegheny County, four of the signatories were free black men? During that
time, blacks found work in the steel mills and steamboat building industry as
well as in the service sector.
Of course, it's impossible to discuss early black history in our region
without understanding the impact of slavery, which in addition to its inherent
injustice has done much to obscure the lives and contributions of many.
While not much is known about early black history in Pittsburgh, records show
that in 1755, General Edward Braddock was dispatched by the British to take Fort
Duquesne, which is now Pittsburgh, from the French. Braddock had several blacks
among the members of his army when he left Maryland to march on the fort, most
of whom were wagoner's and drivers. Samuel Jenkins, a slave of Captain
Broadwater of Virginia, drove the army's provision train. As Braddock advanced
upon Fort Duquesne, other black recruits joined Braddock's army.
According to the WPA History of the Negro in Pittsburgh, a work commissioned
during the Great Depression, Billy Brown, Jack Miner, Abraham Lawrence, and
Archibald Kelso were in the company as slaves of Captain Walker. Also, along on
the mission was a young black boy named Ishmael Titus, who accompanied his
Frontier Life and the Revolution
In 1758, when General John Forbes marched again on the fort and finally took
it for the British, he renamed it Fort Pitt. The WPA History states that there
were 42 blacks among the "green-coated Pennsylvania soldiers, Marylanders and
Virginians, kilted Highlanders and scarlet-coated Royal Americans."
Fort Pitt became the British Empire's western most outpost in the America and
a major trading post. In 1761, the WPA History records one of the first freemen
in the area, Tom Hyde. Hyde had been detained at Fort Pitt after having been
taken prison during the war and had been brought to the fort afterward. Hyde
had previously lived in Boston and his master, Andrew Morgan, had freed him in
Europe. While at Fort Pitt, Hyde would have lived the typical frontier
life-working in the smithy, caulking canoes, cleaning arms and running the saw
During the Revolutionary War, numerous blacks fought on both sides. Lord
Dunmore, the Tory Governor of Virginia, offered freedom to all slaves who would
fight on the side of the British. According to the WPA History, 25,000 slaves
joined from South Carolina and three-fourths of the slaves in Georgia joined the
Redcoats. Similarly, General George Washington lifted the ban on blacks from
serving with the Continental army. It is not known how many joined from
Pennsylvania, but there most certainly were a considerable number.
Pennsylvania and the Abolition of Slavery
On March 1, 1780, the Pennsylvania Assembly passed "An Act for the Gradual
Abolition of Slavery," which deemed that no child born in Pennsylvania could be
a slave. Some chose to ignore the act. Consequently, several additional acts
were enacted to close loopholes. One provision of the law required slaveholders
to register their slaves. Many of the prominent families in the area registered
slaves. The 1790 Census recorded 880 slaves in southwestern Pennsylvania. By
1800 there were 79 in the area and by 1830, there were no recorded slaves left
in the southwestern Pennsylvania.
In the early 1800s, more blacks migrated northward. They settled in areas
called Hayti, which is now the Lower Hill, and Arthursville, the area from
Fullerton Street to Soho.
Arthursville became a major stop on the Underground Railroad in the early
1800s. Lewis Woodson, a barber, educator, and minister; John B. Vashon, the
richest black man in Pittsburgh; and John Peck, owner of the downtown oyster
house; were all agents for the Underground Railroad. On the North Side, which
was then known as Allegheny City, there were also two stops on the railroad.
Avery College, a vocational school for blacks, and the Felix Bruno mansion also
conducted slaves to freedom. Because of its secrecy, it's not known how many
slaves escaped through the Underground Railroad. But some have estimated that
100,000 blacks escaped through it, with most likely only 10 percent making it
all the way to Canada. Many who didn't make it to Canada, settled in Pittsburgh
in areas like Arthursville.
This area of Pittsburgh flourished until the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was
enacted. The act permitted recapture of fugitive slaves. Terrified slaves fled
for Canada decimating the population of places like Arthursville.
Pittsburgh, Anti-Slavery, and the Republican Party
The anti-slavery movement led to the founding of the Republican Party, and
Pittsburgh played a large role in the party's early years, hosting the
first-ever national convention here in 1856. With the election of Republican
Abraham Lincoln in 1860, the simmering moral dilemma of slavery was brought to
the cataclysmic conflict of the Civil War. Pennsylvania had the second highest
enlistment of Union soldiers at 340,000, with 8,600 of them being black. More
than 33,000 Pennsylvanians died in the war.
Fortunately, Pittsburgh never came under fire during the
Civil War, but the
first black field officer in the U.S. Army, Martin Delany, came from
Pittsburgh. Delany was also one of the first blacks admitted to Harvard Medical
School. An accomplished writer, scientist, physician as well, Delany founded
Pittsburgh's first African American newspaper.
After the war in 1875, the schools were desegregated, and in 1887, Lemuel
Goggins was elected as the first black to city council. Between 1910 and 1930,
Pittsburgh's black population grew from 25,000 to 55,000. The growing black
community established the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Homestead Grays, The
Pittsburgh Courier, the NAACP, the Urban League, and many black churches.
Pittsburgh's music scene flourished with entertainers Mary Lou Williams, Errol
Garner, Lena Horne and Billy Eckstine being just some of the luminaries who
headlined in Pittsburgh.
The Civil Rights Era in Pittsburgh
During the 1950s and 60s, blacks in Pittsburgh joined the fight for Civil
Rights, achieving goals of desegregating swimming pools and other public places
and enactment of fair employment and housing laws. Major protests were held
when demolition of the Hill District, the area's largest black neighborhood,
began for construction of the Civic Arena. The corner of Centre and Crawford
Avenues in the Hill is known as Freedom Corner, as it was from this intersection
that protesters marched on city hall.
Freedom Corner was also the departure point for the more than 2,000
Pittsburghers who marched on Washington in support of Dr. Martin Luther King. A
monument was constructed at Freedom Corner and dedicated on April 22, 2001.
In the intervening years, blacks have continued to make strides for equal
civil rights and have achieved many milestones and have risen to prominence in
all areas of society. In addition to Freedom Corner, one of the newest venues
to visit in Pittsburgh that celebrates black culture is the August Wilson Center
for African American Culture, which opened on September 17, 2009. The center is
named after the renowned Pittsburgh playwright, August Wilson, who won two
Pulitzer Prizes for Drama for his plays Fences and The Piano Lesson, which are
part of his series of 10 plays, known as The Pittsburgh Cycle.
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