Sunday, October 19, 2008

Pittsburgh's Slavery Shame

I saw this incredible story in today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Anya Sostek. Note how slave-holding Pittsburghers "got around" laws which would free Black slaves.

The year was 1825, and though a 6-year-old girl named Sally couldn't sign her name, she could sign away the next 22 years of her life.

With the mark of an "X," Sally promised to serve Pittsburgh attorney John McKee in exchange for food, clothing and lessons in the "art and mystery of a house Servant and Cook." At age 28, she'd be granted her freedom, as well as "two suits of women's apparel ... one of which shall be new."

Sally's story -- and the stories of dozens of other slaves, indentured servants and free blacks in the earliest days of Western Pennsylvania -- was unknown until last year, when an employee in the Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds office stumbled upon the word "Negro" in an 1816 property record.

Upon further investigation, the office found 56 records involving the status of blacks in Pittsburgh prior to 1865, all detailed in scrolling handwriting along with mundane matters of land ownership and property transfer.

The records -- fleshed out in the context of other newly discovered and little known historical information -- are the focus of an exhibit, "Free At Last? Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th and 19th Centuries" that opens Saturday at the Sen. John Heinz History Center. The exhibit, created by the University of Pittsburgh, runs through April 5.

"When we talk about the existence of slavery here, people are surprised," said Laurence Glasco, an associate professor of history at Pitt and history director for the exhibit. "We usually think of Pennsylvania as the land of the Quakers and the Liberty Bell, and it doesn't quite go with that image. Bringing the original documents close to a visitor has a powerful effect of really, emotionally, transporting the person back to that era and making it real."

Visitors to the exhibit can learn about Robert Mason, who traveled to Virginia in 1851 to buy and free his wife, Julia, for the sum of $600. Or about 24-year-old William Johnston, who filed a paper certifying that he was born of free parents because he was "about to descend the Ohio River in the capacity of a fireman on a Steamboat."

Robert Hill, vice chancellor for public affairs at Pitt and an amateur history buff, first read about the discovery of the documents in a Post-Gazette article last November. He requested copies of them and started to read through their cryptic cursive script, only to find the documents raising far more questions than they answered.

How widespread was slavery in Pittsburgh, he wondered, and how long did it last? What were all these references to Negro "indentures" in the documents? And how many of Pittsburgh's most prominent citizens -- those with names such as Neville, Craig and McKee that today adorn city streets -- were slaveholders?

After months of digging, he and his team turned up answers that "are rewriting history," said Mr. Hill, who is also executive-in-charge of the exhibit. "We've pulled together little known and unknown facts to tell the story of this town as it relates to slavery in a way that had not been done before."

The overarching theme, he said, was that despite Pennsylvania's much-celebrated 1780 Gradual Abolition of Slavery Act -- the first legislative action by any state to end slavery -- the process of actually moving from slavery to freedom was slow, murky and convoluted.

What the 1780 law did was to mandate that no one born in Pennsylvania after March 1 of that year would be born a slave.

But because slaveholders had balked at the cost of feeding, clothing and caring for the children of slaves in their possession, the law allowed for a 28-year period of indentured servitude for the children of slaves -- under the logic that a slave owner essentially loses money feeding and clothing slave children until they become sufficiently productive around age 14, and the owners need an equal amount of time to recoup their investment.

"I thought either you were a slave or you were free," said Mr. Hill, remarking on the indentured status of children like 6-year-old Sally, who signed legal contracts binding themselves to their owners.

Because Sally had no parents in the state of Pennsylvania, two attorneys -- one of whom, Magnus M. Murray, would go on to become mayor of Pittsburgh -- also approved the contract on her behalf.

Initially, at least, some slaveholders also skirted the law by taking their pregnant slaves to Virginia to give birth (thus, getting to keep the children as slaves), not registering slaves under the law and illegally indenturing the children of indentures.

"What we're seeing is this transition period where it's changing, but it isn't there yet," said Dr. Glasco, noting that indentured blacks did not exist in other states in significant numbers during that time period. "It's a shocking combination of freedom and un-freedom side by side."

That combination included blacks who enjoyed freedom and even prosperity from the very inception of the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. Free blacks accompanied Gens. Edward Braddock, John Forbes and George Washington on their initial forays into Pittsburgh.

Several of those blacks become wealthy business owners, living side by side with whites in Downtown Pittsburgh. Benjamin "Big Daddy" Richards, a butcher who became rich selling to military posts, and his son, Charles, were two of four blacks who signed the Petition of 1787 that resulted in the creation of Allegheny County.

One of Pittsburgh's early wealthy blacks was a doctor, Martin Delany, who also went on to edit Frederick Douglass' North Star newspaper. Another, George Vashon, became the first black graduate at Oberlin College, the first black lawyer in New York State and the first black professor at Howard University.

At the same time, many -- though by no means all -- of Pittsburgh's most prominent white citizens owned slaves. Of the 21 original trustees of the University of Pittsburgh at its founding in 1787, eight were slave owners, said Mr. Hill.

The names of those slave owners read like an Oakland street map -- from Presley Neville to John McKee to Isaac Craig, said Mr. Hill from his fourth-floor office in Craig Hall on Craig Street.

The exhibit also includes a display of an early 19th century George Beck painting of Pittsburgh, a simulated slave ship and wax figures dramatizing slave escapes.

"When you read biographies, history books, autobiographies -- there are millions of words, and this stuff isn't in there," said Mr. Hill. "We fill in the puzzle of what early life in Pittsburgh was like related to slavery and racial matters."

No comments: