History center gets documents tracing slaves' legal status

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The amount it cost Peter Cosco, slave, to buy his freedom in the year 1792: 100 pounds. Finding the original document of the transaction 215 years later and saving it for posterity: priceless.

So said Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds Valerie McDonald Roberts at a news conference yesterday, as she transferred to the Senator John Heinz History Center a folder full of handwritten documents recording the legal status of Mr. Cosco and 55 other African-American slaves from Allegheny County.

The "freedom papers" and documents of indenture were discovered earlier this year, after recorder of deeds supervisor Jeff Liebert stumbled upon the word "Negro" in the index of an 1816 deed book. He checked the referenced page and found the paper, declaring that owner Hanson Catlett was setting free a child of 14, "my Negro Girl Lucy," on the condition that she "faithfully bind herself" to his family until she turned 28.

Upon learning of the find, Ms. McDonald Roberts directed lead supervisor Will Steele to review all deed books from 1788 through 1865, the year of emancipation. He found 56 original papers of freedom or indenture for African-American slaves in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. The oldest dates to 1792.

In the case of Mr. Cosco, the document states that slaveholder John McKee of Allegheny County, set free what he called "my negro man . . . for the consideration of the sum of one hundred pounds."

The papers will be preserved in the history center's climate-controlled archives, where researchers will be able to handle the original documents. Digitized copies will be available for public use online and in the recorder of deeds office. Ms. McDonald Roberts said they would prove invaluable for African-American families interested in tracing their genealogy.

On hand to receive the donation were David Grinnell, the history center's chief archivist, and Samuel Black, curator of its African-American collection.

"It's the City of Pittsburgh's 250th birthday next year, and this is indeed a serendipitous birthday present," said Mr. Grinnell. The center is in the midst of organizing "Refuge on the River," an exhibit about the Underground Railroad in Western Pennsylvania, that is to open next year.

Mr. Black said the papers were invaluable for understanding the history of slavery in the region. They "not only help to clarify the legalities imposed on Americans of African descent, but also the fragility of the status of free men and women in this country and Western Pennsylvania," he said.

Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.


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