Pitt-produced Exhibition—Free at Last? Slavery in Pittsburgh In the 18th and 19th Centuries—Now Accessible Online

Issue Date: 
January 25, 2010

The University of Pittsburgh-produced exhibition Free at Last? Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th and 19th Centuries, which was on display during the 2008-09 academic year at the Senator John Heinz History Center, lives on in a compelling Web version.

By visiting www.library.pitt.edu/freeatlast/, a site built by a team from Pitt’s University Library System (ULS), viewers are guided through a virtual tour of the award-winning exhibition seen by thousands between October 2008 and April 2009.

Free at Last? writes a new chapter in the early history of race relations in this region by exploring the little-known fact that slavery persisted in Western Pennsylvania through the years immediately preceding the Civil War. The exhibition centers on 55 handwritten records of legal transactions in Pittsburgh between 1792 and 1857 that were discovered in 2007 by staff in the Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds Office. Those faded records, now property of the Heinz History Center, document this area’s decades-long involvement with Black slavery and indentured servitude.

“I believe that this effort captures the essence and feel of the original, physical exhibition,” said Rush Miller, director of ULS. “The ULS Web design team did an outstanding job of converting exhibition content into a first-rate online presentation, and the video commentary by Dr. [Laurence] Glasco is an added feature that enriches the experience of the documents and artifacts.”

Highlights of the Web exhibition include:

• Five sections that organize the story—Middle Passage to Early America, The
Freedom Papers, Fugitive Slave Laws and Escapes, Abolition, and Civil War and Aftermath;

• Video segments narrated by Laurence A. Glasco, Pitt professor of history and the
exhibition’s historical director, that explain the significance of the documents and the gripping tales of some fugitive slaves’ escapes to freedom;

• A zoom and navigation tool to closely inspect the original 55 handwritten 

• A typed transcript of the handwritten text; and

• A photo gallery of 81 thumbnail images with a slideshow or the option to click for a full photo and explanation.

Pitt Web services librarian Jeff Wisniewski and designer Kari Johnston were provided with a CD of audio files, pdf files, and the hard copy of the exhibition catalogue. They reassembled the pieces online in a way that mimics the experience of viewing it at the History Center, but with more options.
Ed Galloway, director of Pitt’s Archives Service Center, digitized the slave documents. To show the information in context, a portion of each slave document is shaded in grey. The unshaded portion is a record of human sales, slaves freed by their owners, evidence of a former slave’s free status, or requests for freedom papers. The shaded portion is a sales record of other property, like plots of land.

Even though it’s not the oldest material he’s worked with, Galloway says it’s among the most significant. “These records touch upon the lives of men, women, and children,” he said, “and that’s what makes them remarkable.”

Galloway says he envisions additional links that could be placed throughout the site, leading to other resources and related digitized documents in the ULS archives.
Pitt’s Office of Public Affairs created Free at Last? from conception to execution. The exhibition won six 2009 Golden Triangle Awards from the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), including the award for Best of Show. It also received the CASE District II Gold Award in the Individual Special Public Relations Projects category and the PRSA Pittsburgh Renaissance Award.