Pitt Slavery Exhibition Opens This Weekend

Issue Date: 
October 20, 2008


The pioneering University of Pittsburgh exhibition Free at Last? Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th and 19th Centuries opens this weekend at the Senator John Heinz History Center with a by-invitation reception and program Oct. 24. The exhibition—whose focus is the 55 handwritten records discovered last year in the Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds Office that trace this region’s involvement with Black slavery and indentured servitude—will be on display Oct. 25, 2008-April 5, 2009, in the McGuinn Gallery of the Heinz History Center, 1212 Smallman St., Strip District.

The reception and program are hosted by Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg and Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Robert Hill in association with Pitt’s African American Alumni Council (AAAC), with the reception beginning at 4 p.m. and the program at 5 p.m.

Invited guests—community and corporate leaders, Pitt African American alumni from throughout the state, members of Pitt’s Board of Trustees, and others—will assemble in the museum’s fifth-floor Mueller Event Center. Hill will serve as master of ceremonies in a program that includes remarks from Nordenberg; Samuel W. Black, curator of the History Center’s African American Collections; and Allegheny County Department of Real Estate Manager Valerie McDonald Roberts, who is in South Africa and will address the gathering via a videotaped message. McDonald Roberts was Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds when the historic documents were found, and she, in turn, transferred them to the Heinz History Center.

Toi Derricotte, a professor of English at the University and cofounder of Cave Canem, a workshop/retreat for African American poets, will read from Pittsburgh abolitionist George Vashon’s epic poem Vincent Ogé. Derricotte is the author of four books of poetry and recipient of numerous honors (see AAAC awards story, Page 3).

Born in Pittsburgh in 1824 and the first Black graduate and valedictorian in the history of Oberlin College, Vashon taught classics in Haiti and became New York State’s first Black lawyer, practicing in Syracuse, where he wrote Vincent Ogé.

During her reading, Derricotte will be accompanied by jazz saxophonist Nathan Davis, director of Pitt’s Jazz Studies Program and founder of the Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert, the longest-running event of its kind in the country.

Award-winning author Marcus Rediker, professor and chair in Pitt’s Department of History, will read from his book The Slave Ship: A Human History (Viking, 2007), which won the $50,000 George Washington Book Prize in 2008 and is featured in the Free at Last? exhibition.

Other Pitt faculty members’ books on display in the exhibition are The WPA History of the Negro in Pittsburgh (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004), edited by history professor Laurence A. Glasco, historical director of the exhibition and winner of the 2008 Pitt AAAC Sankofa Award (see AAAC awards story above), and From Slavery to Freedom (New York University Press, 1999) by Seymour Drescher, University Professor of History and Sociology and former winner of the Frederick Douglass Book Prize.

All three of these Pitt faculty authors will be in attendance during the opening to sign copies of their books, which will be on sale.

Following the program, guests will tour the exhibition.