Sadly, slavery is as old as civilization itself, and numerous societies over the millennia has either been enslaved or enslaved others. In fact, the word slavery comes from the Slavs because so many Slavic people were taken into bondage. Today, slavery still exists in the form of human trafficking, forced labor, forced marriage and sexual exploitation.
Pittsburgh’s history has not escaped this blight on humanity. Slavery came to North America with the settlers from Europe. Although Philadelphia had more slaves in the 1700s because western Pennsylvania was still the frontier and there was less use for slaves here, nevertheless the first U.S. Census taken in 1790 indicated that there were 159 slaves living in Allegheny County. In fact, the Pittsburgh Gazette in the late 1700s ran ads offering slaves for sale. Some of the most prominent Pittsburghers whose names are memorialized around town, like John Neville (Neville Island) and Isaac Craig (Craig Street), owned slaves.
However, already in the 1700s Europe and the American Colonies were becoming disgusted with slavery. In 1775, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society was formed in Philadelphia, the first of its kind in the New World. On March 1, 1780, the Pennsylvania Assembly passed “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery,” which deemed that no child born in Pennsylvania could be a slave. Many ignored this law, and several additional acts were enacted to address loopholes. Although the legislation was flawed, it did help to diminish the number of slaves in the area. By 1800, there were 79 slaves here and by 1830, there were no recorded slaves left in southwestern Pennsylvania.
While there may have been no slaves left in southwestern Pennsylvania, that was not the case for the rest of the new nation, and the region would be embroiled in the Civil War. This area of Pennsylvania would also become instrumental in the Underground Railroad, the secret network of routes, safehouses, and people who helped fugitive slaves escape to freedom in free states in the U.S. and into Canada.
It is estimated that 100,000 slaves escaped to freedom via southwestern Pennsylvania stops on the Underground Railroad. Many of the stations have been demolished, and the National Park Service list of official Underground Railroad sites shows five still existing in Pennsylvania. Only one in our area, the F. Julius LeMoyne House in Washington, Pennsylvania, is still standing. Tours are still given today of the LeMoyne House.
In 2008, the Heinz History Center hosted an exhibit called “Free At Last? Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th and 19th Centuries” and it examined slavery and how this plague left its mark on Pittsburgh’s past. Although slavery is something we may want to leave in the past, recalling our history serves to strengthen our resolve to never lapse again into such an abhorrent practice.
By Janice Lane Palko