History Center takes a long look at slavery in Western Pennsylvania

| Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

When Samuel W. Black looks at the road from slavery to freedom that went through Pittsburgh, he sees a route filled with many paths.

While, he says, an active abolitionist movement here provided stops on the Underground Railroad, he points out that some of the richest and best-known figures in the city's past participated in a form of slavery politely called “indentured servitude” that created human property as late as 1857.

The incongruity of such behavior is at the heart of “From Slavery to Freedom,” a long-term exhibit opening Friday at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District.

“We want to use new research to put Pittsburgh in the center of a global experience,” says Black, director of African-American programs at the center. He has spent four years curating this exhibit, which also is using the work of historians from the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and other institutions.

The 3,200-square-foot exhibit will depict the route from Africa to slavery and the impact on American culture.

Andy Masich, CEO and president of the history center, says the exhibit is more about the journey to freedom rather than simply slavery itself.

“Sometimes, slavery seems frozen in time, and we deal with it as if the slaves were freed and became Americans the next day,” Masich says. ”But it was followed by a great deal of time: the Jim Crow era, the era of the great migration to the north, the Civil Rights era, and it is important not to forget any of those.”

He says the story is such an important part of the nation's history, “From Slavery to Freedom” has been put together as a part of the museum's core displays. It will be as much a part of the museum experience as “Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation,” the center's central display since 2008. Masich says it probably will be on display for 10 years, and, of course, could be changed as more historical research emerges.

“From Slavery to Freedom” was funded in part through a $414,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education and will feature:

• A replica of the hold of a slave ship, where visitors will see the inhumanely cramped quarters of the trip from Africa to the New World

• Artifacts, some on loan from the Smithsonian Institution, such as shackles, a violin made from a gourd and animal skin, and pottery and coins used to help the abolitionist movement

• A life-size model of abolitionist firebrand Martin R. Delany and a recorded version of an impassioned speech he gave on the North Side

• A look at the success of Cumberland Posey Sr., who established the Diamond Coal & Coke Co., and Mary Peck Bond, who founded a community to care for former slaves

• A review of the great migration of free, black workers who made their way to the work force of northern states in the 20th century.

Richard J. Blackett says “From Slavery to Freedom” is an important exhibit and deserves its long role in the history center. He is the Andrew Jackson professor of history at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and one of the scholars who contributed his thoughts to the exhibit.

“Pittsburgh was an important spot on the Underground Railroad, and that role makes it important to have the exhibit there,” he says.

Laurence Glasco, associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, says the great number of slaves who made their way into Pittsburgh helped to fuel the abolitionist movement here. He, too, was one of the contributing scholars and says the slaves that came here generally were from farms in the western section of Maryland and Virginia.

Because they were not as “beaten down” as slaves from the plantations, they were more god-fearing, gentle people, he says. The acceptance that stemmed from those traits was one of the reasons for the strength of the abolition movement here, he says.

But, overall, Black says, the black population in America was more a part of an economy rather than a part of the nation's humanity. Even though transoceanic slave trade was prohibited in the United States in 1808, internal trade continued, and marketers of humans helped create thriving cotton, rice and tobacco industries.

The slave market burgeoned because those types of plantations required great numbers of workers, creating a seller's market in the Deep South.

Between 1523 and 1808, 300,000 slaves were brought into North America, Black says. But by the time of the Civil War, that population had grown to 4 million, Black says.

Black's research deals with how slavery would seem to have been eliminated by Pennsylvania's Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, which ended the import of slaves in this state and seems to begin the path to freedom.

Yet, it allowed a life of slavery for those already in that position, and it did nothing to end the indentured servitude in which servants were owned and sold — the same as slaves.

Slavery created a whole different self-awareness for the victims of that forced immigration, Masich says.

“It was only when they got to America that they started to think of themselves as African,” he says. “Before that, they were from Ghana or even simply a part of a tribe. Only here did they find themselves to be different, from a different continent.”

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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