Seaman, war hero, POW, abolitionist, businessman, he was one of Pittsburgh’s earliest black leaders but is little known today
January 22, 2017 12:00 AM
John Bathan Vashon, hero in the War of 1812, and one of Pittsburgh's great black leaders
By Robert Hill
I was only a pre-school Negro boy growing up in Jim Crow-segregated St. Louis, Mo., when my sainted mother, Rosetta, gathered me close and reported, “The best school for Negroes in St. Louis is Vashon High School.” So it didn’t mean much to me.
I would not learn of the greatness of the Vashon name in ensuing decades until nearly 10 years after my arrival in Pittsburgh in 1999 — by way of St. Louis, New York City and Syracuse.
All the same, 2017 marks the 225th anniversary of the 1792 birth of seaman, veteran, war hero, prisoner of war, abolitionist, businessman and, very significantly, Pittsburgher John Bathan Vashon. Active in Pittsburgh from 1829 until the early 1850s, Mr. Vashon was one of the most accomplished Western Pennsylvanians of his day or, for that matter, any day. That he carried the status of African-American renders his achievements all the more astonishing.
Moreover, Mr. Vashon was a hero long before his arrival in Pittsburgh from Carlisle, Pa., and even before his arrival in Carlisle from the War of 1812 and from his native Norfolk, Va.
Before reaching adulthood, he was one of the black soldiers who actually fought in the War of 1812, rather than serving merely as a steward for white officers, according to the African American Registry. The registry includes an unattributed vintage painting of a young Mr. Vashon in action on a ship during the war, as though the artist knew he would be important one day. It may have been painted later, however.
Still only 20 years old and in yet another battle with the British, Mr. Vashon was captured off the coast of Brazil, according to the registry. One of America’s early black American POWs held abroad, he was imprisoned for two years before being exchanged for a British soldier. It seems astounding that the son of a mother who was a slave would be regarded by the government in slave-loving America as worth such a trade; then again, young Vashon’s father was a white son of a slaveholder.
By the time John Vashon moved to Pittsburgh, he and wife Anne Smith had two children. In pre-industrial Pittsburgh, where even the rich found it challenging to experience a hot bath, Mr. Vashon grew prosperous operating the city’s first bathhouse, on Third Street downtown — elegant ladies upstairs, gentlemen on the first floor.
At night, he conducted freedom-seeking slaves through the basement of his facility. He had developed into a passionate abolitionist, one who also owned land and a barber shop. In his home, he hosted the first meeting of the Pittsburgh Anti-slavery Society in 1833. In 1850, the dreaded Fugitive Slave Act was passed. When one slave-catcher entered his shop to apprehend George White, a barber apprentice and suspected runaway slave, Mr. Vashon purchased the lad’s freedom.
Mr. Vashon emerged as one of Pittsburgh’s African-American elite years before the Civil War. Collaborating with other successful antebellum Pittsburgh blacks, such as the Pecks and Woodsons, he advocated for improving the lot of all Pittsburgh African-Americans, both free and enslaved. He and these other leaders especially concerned themselves with schooling.
Along with the Rev. Lewis Woodson and others, Mr. Vashon co-founded the Pittsburgh African Education Society in 1832, the first school attended by Pittsburgh’s black youth. Several of its pupils would themselves go on to become overachieving contributors, such as the city’s first black medical doctor, Martin Delaney, who would be kicked out of Harvard Medical School for studying while black.
More broadly, Mr. Vashon’s wealth, business success with a white clientele and admirable rectitude earned him the respect of white Pittsburgh. He is reported to have influenced Robert Bruce — the principal (chancellor today) of the newly formed Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh) — to join the abolition movement.
Mr. Vashon had even farther reach, being a friend and ally of the famous white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, whose Liberator newspaper Mr. Vashon financially supported. On the day of an 1835 Vashon visit, Mr. Garrison was placed in protective custody after a mob of upper-class Bostonians shred his clothes, beat him and nearly killed him before his rescue by three burly Irishmen. The next day, Mr. Vashon visited his friend in jail and took him a hat. An account of his release later that day noted Mr. Garrison was wearing a fur hat.
On his way to an out-of-town War of 1812 veteran’s convention, John Bathan Vashon collapsed and died in a Pittsburgh train station in 1852 or 1853 (accounts differ).
The only son of Mr. Vashon, Pittsburgh-bred George Boyer Vashon, came into prominence in 2010 when the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania admitted him posthumously to practice law after Allegheny County twice denied him admission to the bar in the 19th century based on his discernible African ancestry. The younger Vashon instead became the first black lawyer admitted to the New York State bar, a respected poet and, among numerous other accomplishments, he became a professor at Alcorn, a newly formed black college in Mississippi. He died there in 1878.
George Vason’s son, John, namesake of his grandfather, became a celebrated St. Louis educator, arriving there in 1887 as principal of Colored School No. 10.
In 1927, the best St. Louis public high school for Negroes, which the grandson led, was renamed for one of America’s outstanding black families, the Vashons. Decades later, my mama thought I should know that.
Robert Hill is a Pittsburgh-based communications consultant.
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