'From Slavery to Freedom' on display at Pittsburgh's Heinz History Center

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

Confederate Gen. Thomas Fenwick Drayton knew what he was fighting for during the Civil War. At the start of the conflict, he owned more than 100 slaves who toiled at his plantation on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, and he was battling to keep them in bondage.

A wall-sized photo at the Heinz History Center shows a dozen of Drayton's slaves posing with Union troops who freed them, not as human beings, but as "contraband" useful to the Southern secession effort. The image, taken by photographer Henry P. Moore, is part of the "From Slavery to Freedom" long-term exhibit that opened Nov. 30 at the museum in Pittsburgh's Strip District. The long-term show is part of the history center's commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

"I hope people will walk away from this exhibit with a greater understanding of the role slavery played in building America," curator Samuel W. Black said. "They also should understand the trauma that slavery caused in the black experience." Mr. Black is director of the African-American programs at the Heinz History Center.

Items and documents on display include traditional tools and musical instruments like those that Africans would have used on their home continent. It concludes with images of modern-day African immigrants who have chosen to make their lives and careers in Western Pennsylvania.

"From Slavery to Freedom" focuses on the African-American experience in and around Pittsburgh, but it relates an international story.

Visitors enter the exhibit through a re-creation of the hold of a slave ship. They were large cargo vessels converted to carry as many as 1,000 human beings in a minimum of space. An estimated 12 million men, women and children were transported, most often in chains, across the Atlantic to the Americas in such vessels. While the museum space is gloomy, it cannot reproduce the noise and smells aboard those crowded ships.

One of the first items visitors see is a four-pronged neck collar from what is now Ghana. It was used to restrain and punish people recently captured and brought to a coastal slave-trading center. Nearby is a pair of child-sized shackles. They contain small pieces of metal that would rattle whenever a young wearer moved.

Owners of sugar plantations in the Caribbean were among the early and major users of slave labor.

J.P. Tudway, the mayor of Wells, England, had his name engraved on brass shackles used on his family's 1,000 acre plantation in Antigua.

Typical of other items used to control rebellious slaves are an 18th century Portuguese pistol and an overseer's leather whip.

Abolition of slavery came early but slowly to Pennsylvania. The state's 1780 "Act for Gradual Abolition of Slavery" did not free anyone already in bondage, but the children of slaves born after the law's adoption became free after 28 years of indentured service.

John McKee, for whose family McKeesport is named, bought the indenture of a 14-year-old girl named "Kut" on Sept. 24, 1793. The terms of the deal are described in a handwritten document originally filed at the Allegheny County Courthouse and now on display at the history center.

The teenager, the daughter of a slave, was to work for McKee for the next 12 years and six months. During that period she "shall not contract matrimony [and] not do anything detrimental to her said Master's interests." McKee was to provide food, shelter and two sets of clothes. In an era when large Southern slave holders feared rebellions led by educated slaves, Kut's indenture, by contrast, required that McKee "learn her to read the holy scriptures."

An interactive map in another room provides details about Pittsburgh places linked to the Underground Railroad. That was the name for an informal, but organized system of secret routes and safe houses that escaping slaves could use to flee north. Stops included John Vashon's barber shop, located in Downtown Pittsburgh near what is now Third Avenue and Market Street. Vashon, a free black, would provide both information and shaves and haircuts to help runaways disguise their appearance.

New Year's Day will mark the 150th anniversary of the date when Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation took effect. The document marks one of the tipping points in the journey from bondage to liberty for African-Americans. The proclamation, which freed slaves in secessionist states, also opened the way for recruiting United States Colored Troops.

Items on display include a reproduction of a regimental banner used by African-American soldiers and a photo of Major Martin Delany. Delany, who published an abolitionist newspaper in Pittsburgh called The Mystery, trained as a doctor and later became the first black field officer in the Union Army.

Other "Freedom"-related images include one of George W. Sweeney, a corporal in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry. He was the great-grand-uncle of state Superior Court Judge Justin Johnson and Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Livingstone Johnson.

The final room of the exhibits includes photos of recent black immigrants. They include Oladoyin Desalu, a native of Nigeria who is executive director of the Western Pennsylvania AIDS Coalition; Dr. Carey Andrew-Jaja, born in Opobo Town, Nigeria, and professor of medicine at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; and Valerie Sene, who came from Senegal and teaches French at St. Bede School in Pittsburgh's Point Breeze neighborhood.

The U.S. Department of Education's Underground Railroad Education and Cultural Program provided major funding. BNY Mellon is the presenting sponsor.

Admission to all exhibits at the Heinz History Center is $15 for adults, $13 for senior citizens age 62 and older, and $10 for those ages 6 to 17 and for college students with an ID. History Center members and children under five can enter free.

From now until Jan. 6, visitors will be able to view "Gridiron Glory," a collection of artifacts mostly from the Professional Football Hall of Fame in addition to "From Slavery to Freedom."

Normal hours of operation are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Extended holiday hours of 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. continue through Sunday and resume Jan. 2 through Jan. 6. The center will be closed New Year's Day.

The history center is at 1212 Smallman St. in the Strip District. Information: www.heinzhistorycenter.org or 412-454-6000.

neigh_city - region - civilwar

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. First Published December 29, 2012 5:00 AM


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?