By the time African slaves stepped off ships onto American shores, they had lost their freedom, name, nationality, family members and language.
"Africa had slavery. But slavery in America was far worse," said John Ford Sr., a curator and historian at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.
During the Civil War, he said, "189,000 blacks joined the Union Army, 8,900 of them from this area. They fought in more than 50 battles."
A collector of black history images and artifacts, Mr. Ford spoke during Saturday's third annual African American Heritage Celebration, held in the Oakland museum's Gettysburg Room as part of Black History Month.
The one-day event, which drew nearly 100 people, looked at how the aftermath of the Civil War affected black families then and now. Mr. Ford curated an exhibition that examined slavery, abolition, emancipation and key leaders in the fight for freedom, including Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.
After the Civil War, more than 4 million former slaves struggled to start their lives anew.
"You might have lost your family and your culture and your language. None of this was given back to you after enslavement. You had to get a job and try to fit into the white culture," said Mr. Ford, whose own ancestors were among the 811 slaves at Mount Vernon, the home of George and Martha Washington.
Nor were blacks free from fear. Between 1889 and 1918, the Ku Klux Klan lynched more than 3,000 African-Americans, Mr. Ford said, adding that 374 people were hanged in Mississippi.
"How did we ever make it here?" he asked rhetorically.
Marcia M. Sturdivant, deputy director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, told her listeners how blacks are faring in America today.
The economic downturn of 2008 plunged many black families into an abyss of poverty and black children are suffering, Ms. Sturdivant said.
As of 2011, 4.3 million black children lived in poverty, a figure that represents an increase of 675,000 children since 2002. Black children are 50 percent more likely than white children to be in foster care. In 2009, 43 percent of all children and youth killed by firearms were black, she said. The average net worth of black American households is $5,677; the average net worth of white households is $113,149.
Ms. Sturdivant said it's important for young black children to know their history.
As if on cue, six young black men who are learning about the history of the United States Colored Troops during regular Saturday sessions at the museum marched into the room. Five of them played drums and a sixth played a flute. Mr. Ford used a sword to conduct them.
Marshall Anderson, a 13-year-old Wilkinsburg teenager who is home schooled, is the son of Marcia Sturdivant. He has studied the history of the 54th Massachusetts, an all-black infantry regiment led by Robert Gould Shaw. He gave a speech drawn from his own imagination and a scene in the film "Glory," which dramatized the regiment's story.
"Tomorrow, we go into battle. Let me fight with the rifle in one hand and the good book in the other. ... They killed my mother. They sold my father. If I should die at the muzzle of the rifle, die on water or on land, I may know that you, blessed Jesus, will be with me. I won't die a slave. I will die a man."
With their drums beating and heads held high, the re-enactors marched out of the room and their audience gave them a standing ovation.
Marylynne Pitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1648.