Highlights of Free at Last? Exhibition

Issue Date: 
October 13, 2008


Slave Ship

Free at Last? Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th and 19th Centuries begins as slavery itself did—with the slave ship. The exhibition features a simulated slave ship complete with artifacts and personal accounts of the horrendous voyage across the Atlantic. The slave ship served as the threshold to slavery, both in terms of transport and as a scene of the institution’s brutality. Slaves lay chained together with barely enough room to move. Disease and pestilence ravaged the cargo holds, and ship crews wantonly abused, raped, and tortured many of their captives. At the same time, Africans of various languages and tribes shared a common hardship, a commiseration still present in African American spirituals and culture.

Pittsburgh Slave Registries and Census Data

The exhibition focuses on documents dating from 1780 to 1857 that portray the scope of Black slavery and indentured servitude in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. These documents break down the collective term “slaves” into individual names and stories. Fifty-five handwritten records discovered last year in the Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds Office tell of a husband buying his wife’s freedom, of 36 Blacks transported from Louisiana to freedom in Pittsburgh, and the 22-year indentureship of a 6-year-old child, among other accounts. Slave registries from the Pittsburgh region present the names and descriptions of people listed as property, underscoring the injustice of slavery. Finally, census data reveal some of this region’s most prominent 18th- and 19th-century citizens as slaveholders and nonslaveholders.

Wax Figures And Great Escapes

As society dragged its heels on abolition, thousands of slaves took action by escaping, risking severe punishment or death if caught. Free at Last? features wax re-creations of the daring escapes of people who went on to become well-known abolitionists and politicians: Henry Highland Garnet, who moved to Pittsburgh and founded Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church in the Hill District; Henry “Box” Brown, who “mailed” himself to freedom; and married slave couple Ellen  and William Craft, who disguised the light-complexioned mulatto Ellen as a sickly White gentleman accompanied by “his” manservent (William). But this hard-won freedom was tentative: After the enactment of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, requiring the return of runaway slaves, not even such escapees as the prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass were safe.

Abolitionists in Pittsburgh

A large, free town less than 100 miles from the slaveholding states of Maryland and Virginia, Pittsburgh hosted a thriving abolitionist movement that crossed racial, gender, and class boundaries. Free at Last? features biographies of several of these people, including the Rev. Lewis Woodson, considered the father of Black Nationalism. Woodson moved to Pittsburgh in 1831 and became a well-known activist, teacher, and preacher at the Hill District’s Bethel AME Church, which is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. Another abolitionist was the Rev. Charles Avery, a wealthy White businessman who viewed education as the key to Black advancement. He established in Allegheny City (now the North Side) what would become Avery College, an affordable school for Black men and women. Famous Black Pittsburgh abolitionists George Vashon and Henry Highland Garnet—whose biographies also are featured in the exhibition—would serve as presidents of the college.

The Civil War and Slavery

The exhibition outlines the prominence of the slavery issue leading up to and during the Civil War. The Southern states began seceding after Abraham Lincoln of the abolitionist Republican Party won the presidency, leading to war in April 1861. Originally dedicated to preserving the Union, Lincoln freed Southern slaves in 1863, making abolition, the preeminent social issue of the 1850s, a central aim of the Civil War. Following the Union victory, laws and Constitutional amendments sought to ensure that freedom—only to be undercut by the end of Reconstruction. Free at Last? explores the promise of emancipation, the struggle to maintain that freedom, and the ways in which African Americans have used it to the benefit of their community and the nation.