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Pittsburgh’s Black History is something everyone should know about. Did you know that when the General Assembly was petitioned in 1788 to form Allegheny County, four signatories were free Black men? During that time, Black people found work in the steel mills, service sector, and steamboat building industry.
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.
Early Black history in Pittsburgh has not been as well documented as it could have been. 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 Black members in his army when he left Maryland to march on the fort. Most were wagoners and drivers. Samuel Jenkins, a man enslaved by Captain Broadwater of Virginia, drove the army’s provision train. As Braddock advanced upon Fort Duquesne, other Black recruits joined Braddock’s army.
The Negro in Pittsburgh was a work commissioned during the Great Depression. According to WPA History, Billy Brown, Jack Miner, Abraham Lawrence, and Archibald Kelso were in the company and enslaved by Captain Walker. Also along on the mission was a young Black boy named Ishmael Titus, who accompanied his enslaver.
Frontier Life and the Revolution
In 1758, 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 Black people among the “green-coated Pennsylvania soldiers, Marylanders and Virginians, kilted Highlanders and scarlet-coated Royal Americans.”
Fort Pitt became the British Empire’s westernmost outpost in America and a major trading post. In 1761, the WPA History records one of the first free men in the area, Tom Hyde. Hyde had been detained at Fort Pitt after being taken prisoner during the war and brought to the fort afterward. Hyde had previously lived in Boston and his enslaver, 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 sawmill.
During the Revolutionary War, numerous Blacks fought on both sides. Lord Dunmore, the Tory Governor of Virginia, offered freedom to all enslaved people who would fight on the side of the British. According to the WPA History, 25,000 enslaved people from South Carolina and three-fourths of the enslaved people 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 one could enslave a child born in Pennsylvania. Some chose to ignore the act. Consequently, several additional acts were enacted to close loopholes. One provision of the law required enslavers to register their enslaved individuals. Many of the prominent families in the area registered enslaved people. The 1790 Census recorded 880 enslaved people in southwestern Pennsylvania. By 1800, there were 79 in the area, and by 1830, there were no documented enslaved people left in southwestern Pennsylvania.
In the early 1800s, more Black people 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 wealthiest 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 Black people, and the Felix Bruno mansion also conducted freedom seekers. Because of its secrecy, it’s yet to be known how many enslaved people escaped through the Underground Railroad. Still, some have estimated that 100,000 enslaved people escaped through it, most likely only 10 percent making it all the way to Canada. Many who didn’t go to Canada settled in Pittsburgh in areas like Arthursville. With t
This area of Pittsburgh flourished until the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was enacted. The act permitted the recapture of freedom seekers. Terrified formerly enslaved people fled for Canada, decimating the population of places like Arthursville.
Pittsburgh, Anti-Slavery, and the Republican Party
The abolitionist movement led to the founding of the Republican Party, and Pittsburgh played a significant role in the party’s early years, hosting the first-ever national convention 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 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 Black people admitted to Harvard Medical School. An accomplished writer, scientist, and physician, 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 person to the 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 like Mary Lou Williams, Errol Garner, Lena Horne, and Billy Eckstine.[clear]
The Civil Rights Era in Pittsburgh
During the 1950s and ’60s, Black people 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 the demolition of the Hill District – the area’s most prominent 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 Jr. A monument was constructed at Freedom Corner and dedicated on April 22, 2001.
In addition to Freedom Corner, one of the newest venues to visit in Pittsburgh that celebrates Black History and culture is the August Wilson African American Culture Center, 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.