University of Pittsburgh

Free at Last?

Written by Ervin Dyer

Two years ago, a single misplaced page from an 1816 property book led to the discovery of a lost chapter in Western Pennsylvania history. It’s a fragment of the past that sheds light on slavery in our nation and the messy struggle toward freedom for African Americans. Now, a compelling exhibition by the University of Pittsburgh, in partnership with the Senator John Heinz History Center, brings that lost chapter to life.

An old, yellowed page sits by itself near a photocopy machine in an Allegheny County deeds office. That’s not so unusual in a place that contains all of the county’s deed records, dating back to the 1700s. The office is the county’s repository for documents regarding the buying and selling of property. Its three floors are stuffed with mortgages, maps, bank records—a thicket of history kept on dusty bookcases and in rows of library-like stacks, chronicling property transactions through the centuries. Well-worn logs record the sale and purchase of land, wagons, furniture, horses, and so forth. There are thousands upon thousands of individual transactions.

One morning, a records supervisor notices the lone piece of yellowed paper. Somehow, it must have fallen from one of the more than 34,000 volumes stored by the office. He picks up the paper, notes the dates of the registries on the page, and makes his way to the stack that holds that era’s deed records. He finds the right log—Deed Book, Volume 22—which dates to the 1800s. He inserts the yellowed page back in its proper place, but now he’s curious. The lost page was not a deed but, instead, part of a plan to subdivide a tract of land. He wonders what else the book contains, so he scans the index. Then, he stumbles across a bewildering notation: Lucy–Negro.

In a deed book that matter-of-factly records sales and purchases of land, cows, and the minutiae of household possessions, the Lucy-Negro reference puzzles him. He begins probing further. Page 332 in the 20-pound book reveals more about this particular “property” transaction. The documentation—handwritten in a graceful, cursive script—is dated Oct. 22, 1816, and records that 14-year-old Lucy, a Negro, is now the property of Hanson Catlett. She is an indentured house servant, legally bound to perform “the art and mystery” of cooking and housekeeping. She must serve for the next 14 years.

Lucy is a slave, a household possession entered in the county’s accounting of day-to-day business transactions.

The discovery of the Lucy-Negro notation was made in 2007 in Allegheny County’s Department of Real Estate, which Pitt alumnus Valerie McDonald Roberts manages. Since 2001 and the beginning of her leadership role with the county, she had worked to convert the office’s records to a digital format and also to make the vintage documents and records available to historians, researchers, and preservationists. Still, no one had ever encountered anything like the Lucy-Negro record.

As an African American, McDonald Roberts was moved by the discovery. She asked some of her staff to search the records for other evidence of people recorded as property. They began with Volume 1, records from 1786, and searched all the deed books dating through 1865. Office workers sometimes relied on magnifying glasses to read fading print as they combed through records so aged that they cracked with a single touch. In time, the staff found 55 transactions relating to slavery in Pittsburgh. These were the stories tucked into the back pages of history, the stories of people lost in the footnotes. There is Lucy, but other stories moved out of the shadows, too.

There is Sally, a Negro girl with no last name. We don’t know whether she played with dolls. We don’t know whether she liked to sing. We do know she was 6 years old when freed by her master in 1825 in Virginia and then was immediately indentured for the next 22 years to a John McKee of Pittsburgh. Sally could not write and signed the document that bound her in service with an X.

There is Emanual Jackson Sr., a free man of color, who purchased freedom for his son, Emanual Jr., a “yellow-skinned” 21-year-old described in court records as 5 feet, 6.5 inches tall with a scar over his right eye. His freedom cost $800 in 1837, which is roughly $15,000 in today’s currency.

There is Robert Mason of Pittsburgh, a Negro husband who paid $600 to set free his wife, Julia, a 35-year-old woman who is “not very dark.” We don’t know his age, or where he worked, or how long he labored to save $600, but her freedom papers were recorded on Oct. 1, 1851.

There is Nancy Rollings. Heavyset, blind in her right eye, and 44 years old, she probably earned her pay a dollar or two at a time. On July 11, 1857, the deed book records that she paid $500 in cash to be free.

When McDonald Roberts (SHRS ’77, A&S ’79G) read these stories, the weight of slavery hit home. First, she grieved. Then the discovery became a moment of epiphany. In the 55 records, she found the strength of ancestors.

Ever since she stepped into the old County Office Building, the ghosts of Pittsburgh’s past swirled around her. In the drawers of vintage file cabinets, her staff had discovered, early on, separate registry books that documented the transactions of women property owners—a fairly rare occurrence in the 18th and 19th centuries—apart from those of men. More than once, McDonald Roberts thought there also must be records for slaves somewhere in those drawers and stacks. But the pressing work of the deeds office and the daunting number of volumes made an all-out search impractical—until the Lucy-Negro reference surfaced.

With the fragile evidence of 55 slavery-related records, McDonald Roberts contacted Samuel W. Black, curator, African American Collection, at the Heinz History Center. Excited about the find, the two held a joint news conference. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette featured a story about the discovery. Not long afterward, Pitt’s Robert Hill called.

Hill, the University’s vice chancellor for public affairs and a longtime history enthusiast, had seen the newspaper article. He wanted to know more. Soon, he was reading the original documents, staying up late at night poring over the handwritten records. He wondered, for instance, about the references to Negro “indentures.” He found it intriguing that the entries linked the known to the unknown. The deed records revealed that some of Pittsburgh’s most prominent early settlers, such as Gen. John Neville, real estate speculator John McKee, and Revolutionary War officer Isaac Craig were among those who held slaves—the cooks, field workers, and child laborers whose names for centuries went undiscovered.

As Hill dug deeper, he realized that the deed entries shed light on the complicated lives of slaves, indentured servants, and free Blacks in the earliest days of Western Pennsylvania. Further research uncovered a copy of the Westmoreland County Slave Registry, 1780-1782 (Allegheny County was carved out of Westmoreland County); a copy of the Registry of the Children of Slaves in Allegheny County, 1789-1813; and census data from the 18th and 19th centuries revealing the Pittsburgh citizens who owned slaves. The deed entries and related records offer insights into the entanglements of race, sex, and power in a developing commonwealth.

These records “shouted out from their aged pages,” says Hill. “They suggested to me that the much bigger story must be told of how and why slavery came to Western Pennsylvania.” So, Hill took the lead in organizing a University of Pittsburgh public exhibition, “Free at Last? Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th and 19th Centuries,” which opened on Oct. 25, 2008, and will run through April 5, 2009, at Pittsburgh’s Senator John Heinz History Center. Pitt partnered with the center to produce the event.

The discovery of the deed entries intersects with several historical anniversaries, each of which gives the newfound records a wide-ranging significance: 2008 was the 250th anniversary of the founding of Pittsburgh; the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade; and the 200th anniversary of the city’s earliest historically Black congregation, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Elements from these and many other slavery-related events are woven into the exhibition, with essential support provided by scholar, author, and Pitt history professor Laurence A. Glasco, who served as the exhibition’s history director.

The exhibition illuminates a remarkable, epic journey involving slaves’ elusive quest for freedom: Free at Last?—posed as a question, not a statement. History center curator Black says that the exhibition is particularly noteworthy for the region because: “These records shed light on how Blacks were perceived in the larger society … and provide captivating and concrete evidence about the relationship between Blacks and Whites in Western Pennsylvania in ways that we may not have clearly considered before.”

In the beginning, in Pennsylvania, there were always slaves. They belonged to the Dutch and Swedish settlers who lived in Eastern Pennsylvania when the state got its charter in 1681. It was about 70 years later when enslaved Africans and free Black men first began their arduous trek over the Alleghenies, coming to the three rivers to help expand America to the west. They came driving cattle. They drove wagons. They served in the military. They came in the 1750s with Gen. Edward Braddock, Col. George Washington, and other military leaders who sought to capture control of Fort Duquesne—resulting in the founding of the city of Pittsburgh in 1758.

Once the green hills opened up, settlers from Virginia and Maryland came to Western Pennsylvania, bringing their slaves with them. The enslaved Africans worked as valets, barbers, farm hands, shoemakers, and stablemen. Even in an era when slavery was morally acceptable, the Quakers wrestled with the issue, and Western Pennsylvania was known for its active support of abolition. This may have lessened the brutality of life for the indentured and the enslaved, especially as compared to the harshness on Southern plantations, but they still were not free.

In Western Pennsylvania, two pieces of legislation deeply affected life for slaves. The Gradual Abolition Act, passed in 1780 by the commonwealth, showed a state grappling with how to do away with slavery. The act was welcome but limited. First of all, it only freed children born after March 1, its date of enactment. The legislation did not free parents or older siblings. And, the act was seen as a compromise for slaveholders, many of whom balked at the cost of feeding, clothing, and caring for the children of slaves. So, the act allowed for a 28-year period of indentured servitude for the children of slaves—derived from the idea that a slave owner loses money by feeding and clothing slave children until they become sufficiently productive around age 14. In return, to recoup their investment, the slaveholders argued they needed an equal amount of time—14 more years—for the indentured to provide labor.

Eighty years later, the nation’s Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed, giving broad powers to slave catchers to apprehend runaways and return them to slavery. It was a terrifying law. It led unscrupulous traders to kidnap free Blacks in the North and sell them into slavery in the South claiming they were escapees. Horrified at the thought of being forced back into slavery, almost 1,000 Blacks left Pittsburgh, went to Canada, and never looked back. For many of those left behind, slavery in the form of indentured servitude persisted well into the 19th century. And, although slavery and indentured servitude were eventually abolished, the seeds of that history planted the roots of racism that have plagued the region and the nation ever since. The 2008-09 “Free at Last?” exhibition grapples directly with these difficult issues during the 18th and 19th centuries. Like many other stories that draw on the history of slavery, the exhibition begins in the dark pit of a slave ship. There is sobering narration that describes the Middle Passage, the tragic maritime slave-trading route that deposited Africans on these shores. While listening, visitors can peer through glass cases and see the manacles and iron shackles that bound the Africans and read the stories of how sharks stalked the ships in the Atlantic, following a trail of blood, feeding on the sick and rebellious who were routinely thrown overboard.

“Free at Last?” does not stay in the dark, though. There are dozens of points of light. By exhibition’s end, visitors have traveled a broad swath of Black history in Western Pennsylvania and beyond. It is a narrative of striving Black families, courageous abolitionists, and daring escapes, including the stories of Henry “Box” Brown, a slave who mailed himself to freedom in a wooden box; and William and Ellen Craft, a married couple who forged a path to freedom by having the fair-skinned wife pose as a sickly white man traveling with “his” manservant.

For a broader context on slavery, the exhibition features noted books by Pitt professors: The Slave Ship: A Human History by Marcus Rediker, From Slavery to Freedom by Seymour Drescher, and The WPA History of the Negro in Pittsburgh by Laurence A. Glasco.

Along the way, the exhibition highlights many citizens—Black and White—who pushed for justice. The heroes include Martin Delany, a prominent abolitionist who studied medicine at Harvard, published a newsletter, and became known as the “Father of Black Nationalism”; Charles Avery, a wealthy White man who founded a college to educate Blacks and left an endowment at the Western University of Pennsylvania (later renamed the University of Pittsburgh) to fund scholarships for Black students; Jane Grey Swisshelm, a White woman who founded an antislavery newspaper and promoted abolitionist causes; and Henry Highland Garnet, who escaped to freedom and later became a Black preacher, a college president, and founder of Grace Memorial Church, the city’s first Black Presbyterian congregation.

The history of individual achievements continues to resonate, but the exhibition also spotlights the remarkable histories of several of Pittsburgh’s earliest Black families.

On the exhibition’s opening night, Rob Waters, a 1979 Pitt graduate and Clairton funeral director, toured the show with his family. As he stood and read one of the historical documents, his two daughters ran over to him. They were excited by what they had seen on a wall farther along. There, among an enlarged collection of 1950s newspaper articles from the Pittsburgh Courier, was a grainy photo of their aunt, Easter Mae Little. Aunt Easter is part of the Little family, whose roots—including ministers, musicians, physicians, and businesspeople—reach back to the early days of Western Pennsylvania.

The exhibition ends with a large poster, full of images of successful Black Americans. The poster displays President Barack Obama, human rights activist Martin Luther King, media mogul Oprah Winfrey, actress Halle Berry, legislative pioneer K. Leroy Irvis, and many others. In the poster’s bottom left-hand corner is a photograph of Valerie McDonald Roberts, a descendent of slaves whose directive to “find the records” opened the door to the “Free at Last?” event. By daring to pull history out of the darkest, most hidden places, she has helped all of us find our way forward.