Eyewitness 1853: Pittsburgh loses a most prominent black citizen

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By the time he turned 60, John B. Vashon had found success in enough careers for a half-dozen men.

Vashon, born free in Virginia in 1792, was the son of a white slave owner named George Vashon and a family slave named Fanny.

His eventful life is described in an on-line biography that is part of a 2008 multi-media presentation called "Free at Last?" created by the University of Pittsburgh's Robert Hill. Mr. Hill recently retired as Pitt's vice chancellor for public affairs.

Vashon served as a sailor aboard a U.S. Navy warship during the War of 1812. During that time, he was captured by the British and held as a prisoner of war for two years.

Following his release, he returned to Virginia and married. In 1822 he moved his family to Carlisle, where he ran a saloon and livery stable. In 1829 the Vashons moved to the booming city of Pittsburgh.

Here he found more success as a businessman, working as a barber and proprietor of a bathhouse. His bathhouse also served as a station for escaped slaves headed north on the Underground Railroad. The bathhouse and Vashon's home were on what is now Third Avenue near Market Street, where PPG Place stands today.

In the decades before the Civil War, Vashon was active in the region's abolition movement, holding the first meeting of the Pittsburgh Anti-Slavery Society in his house.

The success of his businesses and real estate ventures made Vashon "one of the wealthiest Black men in Pittsburgh," according to the Pitt website. He spent some of his money on philanthropic causes, supporting abolitionist journals like William Lloyd Garrison's "The Liberator" and buying the freedom of one of his barber apprentices.

In an era when blacks were rarely mentioned in the city's newspapers, Vashon's unexpected passing on Dec. 29, 1853, resulted in two stories in The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette. "Mr. T.B. Vashon, of this city, a well known and highly respected colored man, died suddenly from a stroke of apoplexy while waiting at the Passenger Depot of the Pennsylvania Railroad yesterday evening," the Gazette reported the next day.

"He was about to embark for Philadelphia and was waiting for the departure of the train, when he was seen to fall," the story said. "A physician was immediately called, but to no purpose. The body of Mr. V. was immediately conveyed to his late residence on Third Street." He was 61.

The Dec. 31 edition of the Gazette had Vashon's correct initials in a story reprinted from the Pittsburgh Evening Chronicle that described his visit to the newspaper on the day of his passing.

"He was in our office about an hour before his death, in high glee," the story said. "He had received a letter of introduction to a gentleman in Philadelphia, which would have admitted him to a participation in the 'Old Soldiers' convention about to be held there."

Despite his father's prominence, Vashon's son, George, a graduate of Oberlin College who trained as a lawyer, was turned down for admission to the Allegheny County Bar in 1847 and in 1868. It wasn't until 2010 that Nolan Atkinson, a Philadelphia attorney and a descendant of John and George Vashon, and Pittsburgh lawyer Wendell Freeman were able to persuade the state Supreme Court to posthumously admit George Vashon to the Pennsylvania bar.

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. See more stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.

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