Historian pens role of black Pennsylvanians in Civil War

Book coincides with 150th anniversary

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Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." Historian Samuel W. Black has found that it can twist backward as well.

Mr. Black, the longtime director of African-American programs at the Heinz History Center, is the editor and a contributor to a new book that looks at the role of black Pennsylvanians before and during the War Between the States. The history center published "The Civil War in Pennsylvania: The African American Experience" as part of the state's commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the conflict. Other contributors to the book include Pittsburgh lawyer Eric W. Springer and Michael Kraus, curator of collections at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum.

The 240-page work includes stories about victories and defeats both on and away from the battlefield, Mr. Black said. The eight essays in the book cover topics that include abolition, emigration and military service by black soldiers and sailors.

Pittsburgh played a major role in many critical events in the decades leading up to the Civil War, Mr. Black said. He was interviewed recently at the history center, where he also gave a tour of an updated long-term exhibit at the museum called "From Slavery to Freedom."

When African-Americans gathered in a Pittsburgh church in 1843, their meeting was part of an effort to restore voting rights to the state's black citizens, he said. That conference came a few years after Pennsylvania voters approved a regressive 1838 state constitution that limited the franchise to "white freeman." Blacks previously had been able to vote in many parts of Pennsylvania.

"That document was an intentional effort to undermine freedom for African-Americans in Pennsylvania," Mr. Black said.

Conditions became more perilous for many of Allegheny County's 2,000 black residents with the passage by Congress in 1850 of the Fugitive Slave Act. That law required courts and police to cooperate with slave-catchers seeking to return African-Americans to their owners in the South.

Fear of enslavement changed the behavior of both slaves who had fled via the Underground Railroad's network of safe houses and also many of the Pittsburgh region's free blacks. "Hundreds of African-Americans left Pittsburgh [after 1850] and relocated to Canada," Mr. Black said.

The loss of voting rights and the effect of the Fugitive Slave Act made many the Pittsburgh residents reconsider the idea of "colonization." The idea of relocating African-Americans back to the home continent of their ancestors regained support among local African-American leaders, Mr. Smith said. The black-led government of Haiti also had agents in Pittsburgh seeking to recruit African-Americans to emigrate and help with the development of that new Caribbean nation, Mr. Black said.

He and other staff members have continued to expand and make changes in "From Slavery to Freedom," the long-term show which opened last year at the history center.

"This is my favorite part of the exhibit," Mr. Black said, pointing to Caroline McAlfrey's freedom papers. Working with African-American genealogical societies, history center researchers were able to track down images of two of McAlfrey's relatives: a sister named Josephine and a grandson named Alexander.

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.

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