Heinz History Center details Pittsburgh's role as a destination for runaway slaves


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What should I take?

Where will I stay?

Who can I trust?

Those are a few of the questions that may have been running through the mind of Abel Bogguess, a slave born in 1827 in Virginia, as he considered whether to make the leap from slavery to freedom.

He decided in 1843 that he would, and with members of his family Bogguess fled the plantation where he lived in Virginia, using agents of the Underground Railroad to make his way to Uniontown, then to Pittsburgh, to Butler, and finally to northern Ohio.

His story is told in "From Slavery to Freedom," a new exhibit at the Heinz History Center in the Strip District that covers more than 250 years of African-American history. The exhibit, which will remain at the History Center for the next decade, was funded by the U.S. Department of Education Underground Railroad Education and Cultural Program.

It begins with a look at life in 18th-century Africa, then presents the experience of the cramped journey on the slave ship across the Atlantic Ocean, the role of slavery in the economy of the early United States and the challenges faced by the slaves who escaped. It examines the rise of the abolitionist movement, the Civil War, reconstruction and finally, present-day life for African-Americans.

The goal of the exhibit is to connect Pittsburgh with the history of slavery and freedom, said Samuel W. Black, director of the African American Program at the Heinz History Center, who worked on developing it for more than four years.

"Our goal is, let's add something new to the story," he said at the conclusion of a tour of the multi-room exhibit. "Let's not just repeat what's already out there."

Pittsburgh was, and remains, a "destination of freedom," Mr. Black said, but the story of Pittsburgh's relationship to slavery is a complex one.

One person who embodied that complexity was Charles Avery, a white man who lived in Pittsburgh in the mid-1850s. He was an abolitionist, but he was also an owner of a textile mill, so he profited from an industry that benefited from the cotton produced by slaves in the southern United States.

That mixed relationship between slavery and freedom is expanded upon throughout the exhibit.

The gradual abolition of slavery began in 1780 in Pennsylvania, but there were documented slaves in Pittsburgh until 1857, and a gallery in the Heinz exhibit provides the evidence in records compiled from the Allegheny County deeds office, where slaves were counted as property, Mr. Black said.

At the same time, Pittsburgh was home to fervent abolitionists, many of whom worked at the Monongahela House Hotel Downtown, Mr. Black said. He cited a story about an Arkansas slave owner named John Drennen who was traveling through Pittsburgh in 1850 with his wife and their young slave and stayed at the hotel.

Hotel workers spirited away the 14-year-old girl, incensing Drennen, who was unable to persuade a police officer to help him track the girl down, Mr. Black said.

The Heinz exhibit contains advertisements placed in Pittsburgh newspapers for missing slaves, such as one by Levi Houston in the Pittsburgh Gazette in 1813, offering a $30 award for a 26-year-old "Negro woman" named Grace if she was found within 30 miles of Pittsburgh, and $50 if she was found further away.

The goal of the exhibit is to help people understand that Pittsburgh was part of the American story of slavery to freedom, Mr. Black said.

Pittsburgh has played a role mostly in the freedom part of that story, he said, and in 21st-century America, Pittsburgh can claim among its residents recent immigrants from Africa and their children.

"It is still recognized as a destination of freedom today," he said.

The Heinz History Museum, now featuring the "From Slavery to Freedom" exhibit, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults, $13 for senior citizens age 62 and above, $10 for students with a school ID, $10 for children ages 6 to 17, and free for History Center members and children 5 and under.

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This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To subscribe: http://press.post-gazette.com/ Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.


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