Martin Delany was go-to man to quell racial tensions in Pittsburgh

Martin Delany was the go-to guy in Pittsburgh when disputes broke out between blacks and whites in the decade before the Civil War.

In 1855, Delany was called in by Mayor Ferdinand E. Volz to negotiate the release of an African-American woman seized from the dining room of a Pittsburgh hotel. The men who took her away included black staff members at the City Hotel. They believed the unidentified woman was a slave being transported by her owner to Illinois.

The story of Delany's role in that incident is one of several reports on black-led abolition efforts recorded during the 1850s in the pages of The Pittsburgh Daily Gazette. A look back at that 19th century coverage is part of the Post-Gazette's commemoration of Black History Month.

Pittsburgh History: Martin Delany

Pittsburgher Martin Delany was one of the first blacks accepted to Harvard Medical School and a founder of the American black nationalist movement. (Video by Steve Mellon)

Delany, born a free black in what is now Charles Town, W.Va., came to Pittsburgh as a young man. He trained as a physician and became involved in multiple local organizations seeking emancipation, education and civil rights for African-Americans. He became the editor and publisher of the abolitionist newspaper "The Mystery." A decade later during the Civil War, he was commissioned a U.S. Army major, the highest rank given to a black soldier during that conflict.

The March 6, 1855, "consultation" that resulted in the effort to rescue the woman "was attended by a large number of colored people," according to a story that appeared March 8 in the Gazette. "As far as we can learn, it was a meeting of an organization which has for its object the seizure of slaves passing through the city, and is probably what is known as 'the Underground Railroad Company.' "


The Underground Railroad was the name given to a network of anti-slavery activists. They identified and operated farms and safe houses where escaping slaves could find shelter and aid while they made their way north to Canada.

The passage by Congress in 1850 of the Fugitive Slave Law had made it a federal crime to help escaping slaves or hinder efforts to capture them. The hefty punishment for conviction was six months in jail or a $1,000 fine, the equivalent of more than $27,000 in modern currency.

The risk of imprisonment or fine doesn't seem to have deterred efforts by many blacks and whites in Pittsburgh to help those fleeing the South.

The City Hotel incident took place at breakfast where a man named Slaymaker was dining with his family and a black female servant. "Mr. S. noticed that waiters were unusually abundant, as many as five or six being near him at once, but he suspected nothing," the newspaper reported. A group of African-American men "entered the dining room from the kitchen door, and seized the black woman," the story said. "She screamed, cried out that she was free, that she was not a slave, that she was born in Pennsylvania, but without avail." Slaymaker told the newspaper someone struck him during the melee, possibly by a black barber named Davis.

The City Hotel was at the corner of what is now Third Avenue and Smithfield Street. Davis' barber shop was nearby on Third Avenue and the woman was first kept in a basement there and then moved to an unknown location, according to the Gazette.

Slaymaker was advised to appeal immediately to Mayor Volz. "He also produced the necessary papers to prove that the woman was born in the State of Pennsylvania and was free," the story said. "It was then suggested that if these facts be made known and substantiated to some respectable colored citizen that there would be no difficulty in getting the woman back."

Volz turned to Delany. "Dr. Delaney repaired thither and on an examination of the documents declared himself satisfied that the woman was free." As it sometimes was, Delany's last name was spelled with a second "e" in the Gazette report.

Delany, accompanied by a city policeman named Frost, walked from Market Square to a house on what is now Webster Avenue "in the upper part of the city." There they met with a dozen black men who looked through Slaymaker's documents with Delany. They then agreed to release the woman.

"The party then started down and got the woman from a house somewhere near the intersection of Cherry alley with Strawberry alley," the story said. "Frost was not permitted to go to the house." Those streets now are called William Penn Place and Strawberry Way.

"The woman was then conducted back to the City Hotel and delivered into the charge of Mr. Slaymaker," the Gazette reported. "Dr. Delaney furnished Mr. S. with a certificate addressed to 'The Friends of Liberty' in which he ... declared the woman as free."

"Mr S. is an anti-slavery man in sentiment," the story concluded. "He and his family leave for the west today."

Anonymous Pittsburgh "agents of the underground R.R. Co." also played a role in assuring that a group of ex-slaves freed by their late Virginia master retained their liberty.

"The Wind Blows from the South today" was the headline on a story that appeared June 20, 1855, in the Gazette. "On Monday we heard some of our colored population make use of the above phrase," the story said. The writer "learned that it meant that we had received an addition to our colored population."

After the death of their owner, his will required that his freed slaves were to be "sent to, and provided for, either in Penna. or Ohio," the story said. The group had been transported to Pittsburgh, and they were set to travel down the Ohio River on the steamship Caledonia. The fact that the ship's final destination was the Gulf of Mexico, deep in the slave-holding South, raised suspicions among the Underground Railroad supporters here.

"While [the former slaves were] here, the man who had them in charge refused to give them any satisfaction as to what disposition he was going to make of them," the story said. That created "the presumption that he might take them beyond the place designated in the will" and sell them back into bondage. Slaves in Texas and Louisiana were worth as much as $1,500, or more than $41,000 each in modern currency. "If an agent were disposed to be dishonest, he might avail himself of so favorable a chance," the reporter speculated.

"[T]he manumitted slaves were induced to leave the boat and their suspicious agent," the story said. The article described them as intelligent and well dressed. "One thing is certain. They had more sense than to trust themselves and their liberty to the uncertainty of a trip on a Western Steamboat bound for the South West." 

Len Barcousky: or 724-772-0184.

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