Western Pa. was key in anti-slavery effort

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Pittsburgh can take pride in the welcome it gave to abolition leaders during their visit in 1847, Pitt history professor Laurence Glasco said.

"Western Pennsylvania and Ohio were centers of anti-slavery activity," Mr. Glasco said in a recent interview. The abolition movement began in places like Boston, but it gained strength among whites in the Midwest. Farmers, workers and small business people all saw it in their interest to oppose slavery, he said.

Mr. Glasco, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, is an expert on the region's black history.

"Abolition got tied up with the idea of 'free soil,' and rural populations saw slavery as something that would harm white people," he said. "They feared that slave owners would repeat the pattern in the South: buy up large tracts of the best land and run their plantations with slaves. They said, 'Gee, a white guy can't compete with that.' "

That economic argument was linked with a spiritual one, Mr. Glasco explained. As religious revivals swept through the region, more and more people came to regard slavery as a moral crime.

In the years before the Civil War, Pittsburgh was only 40 miles east of the border with slave-holding Virginia, now West Virginia. "Until runaway slaves could reach black neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, they had to count on friendly whites to shelter them," Mr. Glasco said. The homes and farms of white supporters became stops on the what was known as the Underground Railroad.

The advantage could be two-way. "Rural whites could take in runaways, have them do some chores, give them a little money and send them on their way," he said.

When William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass brought their abolition campaign to Pittsburgh in August 1847, Garrison, the white anti-slavery activist, was seen as more radical than Douglass, a former slave.

"Garrison was so fanatic that he gave speeches where he would tear up copies of the Constitution," Mr. Glasco said. "He feuded with anti-slavery people who just wanted to keep slavery from spreading. He wanted immediate emancipation."

For Garrison it was literally true that some of his best friends were black. "A number of white abolitionists were against slavery, but they were not comfortable around blacks," Mr. Glasco said. "Garrison would break bread and enjoy the company of black people, accepting them as equals and brothers."

Douglass was more pragmatic and sought to build political alliances to support emancipation and civil rights, including the right to vote, for African-Americans, Mr. Glasco said.

Douglass believed African-Americans were fully Americans. "His position was 'We belong here, we are going to stay here and we will make this country live up to its ideals,' " Mr. Glasco said.

In contrast to Pittsburgh's Martin Delany, Douglass opposed colonization plans that would have relocated African-Americans to Africa, Haiti or other territory outside the United States.

"Douglass was a towering figure, and he brought the rest of the country's black population along with him," Mr. Glasco said. "As a result we've never had a tradition of black sedition or rebellion against the United States -- despite some of the things black people endured."

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.

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