This website is based on the exhibition created by Robert Hill and exhibited at the Heinz History Center from October 25, 2008 to April 5, 2009.
I became aware of the slavery-related documents that form the basis of this Free at Last? exhibition by reading about them in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article. I was late, having read toward the end of 2007 about the discovery made earlier in 2007 of the documents in the Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds Office. Fortunately, I was not too late.
Free at Last? results from my desire to illuminate a little-known aspect of the establishment, growth, and development of Pittsburgh. The 55 records that were on display in the Heinz History Center substantiate that, at least between 1792 and 1857, the region’s Black children and youth, whose older relatives were slaves for life, were subject to a system —legal and otherwise— that in stages enslaved them, indentured them in a kind of de facto term slavery, and forced them to prove their free status.
These and other slavery-related documents, recorded earlier or at the same time as the 55 records, shouted out from their aged pages the need to be publicly inspected. And they suggested to me that the much bigger story must be told of how and why slavery came to Western Pennsylvania, the locus of the 55 records and the focus of the exhibition. And equally important were the means by which slavery in this region was legally ended and the extent to which Southern slavery and the effects of slavery persisted.
Free at Last? takes the visitor on a journey that begins with life as usual in Africa, stops over in the slave castles that lined the West African coast, travels across the gruesome Middle Passage onward to slavery in the Americas, and, as W.E.B. Du Bois characterized it, through a descent into hell.
Through the exhibition, the journey brings us to the American colonies, Pennsylvania, and the Pittsburgh region, where the core of the story dates to Pittsburgh’s founding 250 years ago. The Pittsburgh and broader Pennsylvania variety of slavery may not have been as punishing as the Southern version. Nonetheless, it was slavery, in turn accompanied by and followed by discrimination and segregation so seemingly intractable that their vestiges survive today. It is within this context of the 21st century that we encourage the visitor to experience Free at Last? Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th and 19th Centuries.
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