Freedom is the cornerstone from which African Americans have built their lives. Whether enslaved or free Americans of African descent have always desired freedom. That desire has manifested in numerous ways both in their ancestral homeland, the continent of Africa, as well as in the Americas.
The Senator John Heinz History Center has developed a micro site to feature its award winning exhibition project that chronicles the African experience in America and its manifestation of freedom in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. This site is an online version of a larger project that included an award winning exhibition, public programs, research, workshops, and education lessons and teachings. The project is named in dedication to the great historian, John Hope Franklin, and his seminal work, the nine editions of From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans first published in 1947. I first met Dr. Franklin when I invited him to be the keynote speaker celebrating the 25 anniversary of the African American Archives in Cleveland in 1995. I felt then as I do now that any work looking at a wide range of the African American experience should be embraced by Franklin the most dynamic and scholarly academic of my lifetime. With the blessing of his son, John W. Franklin, the Heinz History Center uses the title of its project to not only honor Franklin but also the thousands of Africans and African Americans on both sides of the Atlantic, spanning hundreds of years of struggle and triumph, and forever seeking a path to freedom.
From Slavery to Freedom explores the quest for freedom by Africans in America from the enslavement of the 18th and 19th centuries to the civil rights movement of the 20th and 21st centuries. The site is largely focused on African Americans in Pittsburgh but in order to due proper historical context, the African background is explored including the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade moving forward. The site explores the abolitionist movement and Underground Railroad in greater Pittsburgh and original research that examines more closely the efforts of freedom seekers to sustain their lives as they made their way from slavery to freedom.
During the antebellum period of the 19th century Pittsburgh became a destination of freedom. By 1831 Africans had been enslaved in America for two hundred -eleven years. For the next 30 years Pittsburgh would be engrossed in the abolition of slavery locally and nationally. During this period the local population increased as did the resolve of local abolitionist to fight for suffrage rights and the end of bondage in America. Pittsburgh held the reputation as an active militant community of both African and white abolitionists. Not until the end of the Civil War in 1865 did many of the issues of slavery, citizenship, and suffrage resolve into a new world for African Americans. Legal bondage may have disappeared, but social codes forced African Americans to relive slavery if but in another form. Despite the bonds of American racism, Africans Americans in Pittsburgh contributed greatly to the development of the Three Rivers region and helped form its identity as a hardworking and creative city. From the anti-slavery movement to civil rights African Americans have defined freedom and shaped the American experience.
Slavery is not synonymous with being African. Freedom has been a major part of African societies throughout its history. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade from the 16th to 19th centuries is only a small part of the history of West African civilization, however it had a profound impact on the region.
This section looks at African civilization from the Senegambia to Angola, the very region exploited by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
In Western Africa from Senegal to the Central African region (Angola) of the 15th to the 19th centuries, unaffected by the slave trade, great developments in metallurgy, textiles, agriculture, government, economy, social and cultural dynamics advanced. These were great societies with large cities and city-states. Metallurgy, textile development, currency, wears, tools, agricultural techniques, social and cultural practices are all signs of African civilization. These skills, technologies, and development processes were exploited by Europeans in the slave plantations, mines and fisheries of the Americas. Metal work such as sophisticated weapons, tools, and currency are examples of the skill and technique of Africans.
Bronze and later iron weaponry evolved in the region of the Congo/Angola basin. A Congo spearhead like those used by Luango warriors helped build a great empire along the Southwestern Atlantic coast. Queen Nzinga Mbande's ironsmiths developed weapons for war against their enemies including the Portuguese. Other iron tools were used to advance the agriculture practices of Africans. The iron hatchet was used for many work applications including harvesting wood and other needs. Currency were examples of metallurgy among African people but also reinforced a system of trade and commerce. The cross or x-shaped Katanga currency bar is a great example of such craftsmanship. These currency bars were copper casted and used in trade and commerce in the Southern Congo region.
Textile development was a part of every household and family looms, such as this one from the Congo region, dates back to the 19th century. African textiles utilized natural fibers made from cotton, raffia, bark fibers, and animal fur. The African weaving techniques demonstrate a cultural tradition dating back thousands of years. The kente of the Akan people are just one example of material culture that is defining of a people.
Social and cultural practices such as age-grade ceremonies, rituals, hierarchical ceremonies, all played a role in the manifestation of African culture. These cultural practices utilized the adornments and instruments of ritual or entertainment developed by various societies. Language, musical rhythms, and social thought advanced Africans cultural norms and reinforced ethnic identities. It is important to know that this region of Africa contained a multitude of social, political and cultural systems. The hand piano instrument has many names and is used in various regions in western Africa. It is called the Sanza in some societies but Francis Bebey refers to it as, “Likembe or Gibinji in the Congo; Timbili by the Babute of the Cameroon; and the Kone in the region of Ghana.” It is referred to as a thumb piano in the Americas. Another retention of African musical innovation can be found in the gourd fiddle circa 1850. This instrument is known to have been made in St. Mary's County, Md. and is indicative of the style of musical instrument made by enslaved Africans in America.
Material culture and norms that reflect a sophisticated and diverse Western Africa economy are but a few of the indicators of a society. Entrepreneurs conducted trade, material innovation, marketing, management, and accounting to support the growth, development and sustainability of these societies. Trade routes were established long before Europeans came to this part of Africa. In the central region, trade routes stretched from the Atlantic coast across Southern Africa to the eastern Swahili coast. Another route stretched from the West African Atlantic coastal region north across the Sahara to the Mediterranean coast and east across the great desert to the Middle East. These were the routes historically taken by Mansa Musa and the great kings of Songhay. Yet another route connected the West African Atlantic coast via the Niger River to the Nigerian interior. African seamen ventured to the Americas before Columbus' journey. Historian's Lerone Bennett Jr., and Ivan Van Sertima have proffered that Africans sailed the Atlantic and arrived in the Americas during the reign of the Mali Empire.
No one knows the exact population of the African Atlantic coast between the 15th and the 19th centuries. We know that most estimates of captives that disembarked in the Americas during the slave trade were at 12 million. Many more than that were captives who perished during the middle passage. Some historians have estimated that more than 75 million Africans inhabited the coastal region from the Senegambia to Angola. During this time major political structures were empires, kingdoms, queendoms, and city-states such as Songhai, Akan, Borno, Ife, Benin, Oyo, Ndongo, and Kongo. Cultural spiritualities as well as Islam existed in these societies. Social and cultural practices from political systems, economic bases, education, family, and territorial networks existed.
Generations after the end of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, these fruitful societies were invaded by colonial powers only to be raped of human and natural resources all over again. Not until the era of the American Civil Rights Movement did the independence movement in Africa emerge new states, territories, and societies.
From 1501 to the 1880s, the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade brought devastation to Africa, wealth to Europe, and demographic trauma to the Americas.
In no other time in history had so many people of various ethnicities been forced to migrate from one side of the planet to another. The triangular trade moved African captives from along the western coast from Senegal to Angola across the Atlantic where they mined precious minerals and produced goods shipped to European markets and colonial governments where products were sent to Africa for more captives.
During this 400 hundred year period, slave ship engineering further developed. Merchant ships were refitted as slave ships to transport human cargo. The Caravel, Nau, Galleon, Caramack, Clipper, Frigate, and Brig were all different types of ships used to transport African captives from the western coast of Africa to the Americas. These ships carried between 100 and 1,000 people packed like sardines in a can. It all began with the Portuguese caravel in the 15th century.
In the 1440s, the Portuguese travelled down the west coast of Africa setting up trade and conquering lands in the name of the Portuguese crown. They landed in modern Mauritania in 1444 and captured free Africans transporting them to the Atlantic Ocean islands of Cape Verde and the Azores before eventually holding Africans enslaved in mainland Portugal at its capital in Lisbon. At one point, Lisbon became 10% African because of the enormity of the enslavement of Africans. The Portuguese would control the enslavement of Africans that were first brought to the Atlantic Islands, Europe, and other parts of West Africa before being transporting across the Atlantic to the Americas.
Over time, a systematic enterprise took root between European governments and corporations and African governments and monarchies. Hundreds of ethnic Africans were packed like sardines in the hull of slave ships and transported in what Marcus Rediker calls, "floating dungeons." The trade mixed ethnicities on ships and tried to strip ethnic ties once in the Americas. Viewing Africans not by their ethnic origin but by their "blackness" and status as property would make it more difficult to attach ethnic origin to the descendants of captives for centuries. Among the ethnicities aboard slave ships were the Mende, Susu, Baga, Akan, Yoruba, Ewe, Ovimbundu, Kongo, Makua, and Yao among many others.
For Europeans, the revenue from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade became so prosperous that its population expanded for the first time since the Black Plague of the Middle Ages. The expanse of the new commerce brought a renewed economic life to Europe. New port cities were developed or expanded due to the profits of the trade including Bristol, Liverpool, and Manchester, England. The ports of London, Nantes, and Lisbon expanded due to the extensive commerce of slaves, spices, gold, and other goods. Lisbon, the western-most port in Europe and the land base closest to the Western Hemisphere, enjoyed significant population, economic, political, and cultural growth during the slave trade period.
The Portuguese were the first to embark on the Trans-Atlantic trade that initially wasn't trans-Atlantic at all. Between 1501 and 1641, Portugal and Spain accounted for 97% of the slave trade. For some time, the Royal African Company (RAC) founded in the 1660s and the Dutch West India Company held jurisdiction over the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. In its first 16 years, the RAC transported approximately 90,000 captives across the Atlantic. London reaped great profits from the slave trade from the 17th through 18th centuries. Sugar became a major cash crop for both Iberian and British companies.
Although Europeans initiated and controlled the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, it could not have been as profitable and impacted the development of the Americas if not for the collaboration of some African societies. Kingdoms in Dahomey and Kongo collaborated with Europeans such as the Portuguese, British, Dutch, and others to extract the sick, prisoners of war, drought victims, debtors, victims of violence, raiding, and kidnapping for the trade. Some of these Africans societies came to rely on the slave trade economically and were handicapped when the abolition of such trade was initiated in the early 19th century.
North America represented about 4% of the disembarkation of the Trans-Atlantic enslaved. Roughly 389,000 captives disembarked in North American ports at Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; Boston, Mass.; Newport, R.I.; New York, N.Y.; Biloxi, Miss.; New Orleans, La.; Annapolis, Md.; Alexandria, Va.; Philadelphia, Pa; and other ports along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. The slave trade proved profitable for Americans and served as a basis for the economy of the new nation after the Revolutionary War.
By the late 18th century, political opinion of the slave trade in Britain intensified and became successful in suppressing the trade by law in 1807. The U.S. followed suit a year later in 1808. It must be understood that the slave trade was not abolished for moral reasons but purely economic and political ones. The Trans-Atlantic trade was abolished but the internal trade in North America became an even greater institution until 1865.
For nearly 400 years, men and women from all along Africa’s Atlantic coast and interior were captured, imprisoned, chained, and then packed into European slave ships and taken to the Americas. Once on the ships, Africans continued to resist. This section depicts possible dialogue from African men and women who were often separated on board the ships and vulnerable to the advances and oppression of the white male crew. The dialogue shows the cunning survival skills of women and their determination to survive their ordeal. African ritual music and song was often part of the dialog on board ship to disguise the messages they shared from their European captors.
West Central Africa, including present day Republic of Congo, Angola, Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Sao and Principe accounted for 5.7 million captives enslaved in the Americas. Their languages from the Bantu region was spoken on the thousands of slave ships crossing the Atlantic and is recalled here as an example of the resistance of Africans. The below dialogue is spoken in the Kikongo, Lingala, Kiswahili, and Biye languages of West Central Africa.
To see English translations of each of these dialogues, please click here.
The enslavement of Africans in the Western Hemisphere has commonly been focused on labor. However, the From Slavery to Freedom exhibition focuses on the economic aspect of slavery and includes labor as a part of the overall economic and financial plan of enslavement.
Great wealth was made by European participants in the slave trade. And like many other economic ventures, slavery developed peripheral industries and systems that had a lasting impact on the global economy. By examining the plantation system, cash crop globalization, slave ship engineering, tool and machine innovations, technological exploitation, as well as socio-political economic development can we better understand the totality of the slave economy.
The Spanish followed Columbus' voyages to the Americas by establishing colonies that utilized enslaved Africans as labor forces to build one of the strongest colonial economies in the West. The Spanish were known for their brutality of native and African populations. The so-called “conquest of the Americas” did not come by peacefully but through violence as entire civilizations in the Caribbean, Central and South America were annihilated by Spanish colonial aggression. Mining, plantation agriculture, and socio-cultural politicization were the cornerstone of Spanish imperial conquest. Colonial Africans were defined as property and therefore their status would be defined in economic terms for quite some time.
In 1698, the Royal African Company relinquished its monopoly on the slave trade and it became the right of every British citizen to trade in slaves as they saw fit. North American colonists used indentured servants until 1661 when the Virginia colony passed laws declaring and defining slavery as the domain of Africans and hereditarily through African women. This was the beginning of North America slave statues. Judge Leon Higginbotham in his book, “In The Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process, the Colonial Period,” outlines the various statues establishing slavery in the British American colonies. By doing so not only did it transform the economic value of slavery but also a socio-cultural strata that made race and color the dividing line for human rights.
As the colony further developed, an increase in African slaves were demanded. In addition to the business of the slave trade, coastal North America was also expanding in the business of its agricultural economy based on the expansion of slave labor. Sugar, rice, cotton, tobacco, indigo, and wheat became major cash crops for the economy in North America. Using a plantation system of labor and production to realize massive profits these colonial economies became so powerful that they forced independence and sovereignty.
Sugar plantations were established throughout the Americas increasing the European demand for its products and expanding the product in affiliated crops such as coffee, tea, spirits, and confections. The Dutch were the first to introduce sugar as a slave raised plantation crop in the Caribbean in the 17th century. Sugar transformed the European diet and was in great demand. The wealth and impact of sugar spurred the industrial revolution in the 18th century. Antigua and Jamaica were major sugar producing islands of the Caribbean. Sugar plantations held hundreds of slaves under brutal conditions where the life expectancy was less than 10 years. Laborious work, environmental and industrial hazards shortened the life span of enslaved on these plantations.
Rice is an indigenous crop of the West African coastal region from the Senegambia to the Liberia border. Coastal Guinea rice cultures had cultivated the crop since 1800 BCE. Coastal cultures in Guinea and Sierra Leone were the target regions for the slave trade specific to the development of rice plantations in the Americas. They had developed a sophisticated technology and system working in the mangrove swamps along the Atlantic coast and forged indigenous tools such as the fulcrum shovel . Thousands of rice coast people were enslaved to produce the rice industry of North America. For North America rice was concentrated in the Carolinas and Gulf Coast. Rice became the major starchy food of colonial America and its production enriched those who eventually lead the Continental Congress and independence movement against the British. Henry Laurens, a South Carolina slave trader, rice plantation owner, and shipper became a major financier of the Revolution and even served as a diplomat imprisoned for a number of years by the British only to be released in exchange for Cornwallis in 1781.
Cotton was another cash crop cultivated in the Carolina plantation system of the colonial period before moving to other states and sections of the country. As the United States expanded, cotton production became the largest cash crop and would accumulate over 40 percent of the gross national product by the 1840s. The cotton plantation system advanced after the invention of the cotton gin in 1794 and the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1808. Southern territories became states between 1808 and 1830 identifying cotton as one of the major plantation cash crops of those regions. When Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Arkansas, and Louisiana joined the union, it allowed the cotton belt to expand from the Carolinas to Texas. Relying on slave-produced cotton, northern textile mills imported tons of cotton each year feeding the growing industries in New England and Western Pennsylvania. By the 1840s, the port of Pittsburgh accounted 5,000 tons of Mississippi cotton each year.
American cotton plantations were notorious for their brutality and hardship of the enslaved and many feared being sold south headed for those areas. American slave-raised cotton became a major export crop to Great Britain and other European markets. Cotton was so important to the southern economy that it was a major factor in the commencing and strategy of the Civil War. Abolitionist knew that undermining the slave-raised cotton industry was a key to abolishing slavery in the U.S.
Tobacco is an indigenous plant of the Americas that was popular for several uses among first peoples of the Americas. The plant had medicinal, recreational, sacred, and utilitarian uses. For European colonists the recreational smoking, chewing, snuffing, and utilitarian use were most popular. Recreational smoking and chewing of the leaves and utility as rope and binding made the product popular to a colonial and European market. As early as the 1520s, Europeans were using tobacco. In North America, tobacco plantations in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Maryland spread with the migration of white settlers into Kentucky, Tennessee, and other states. Tobacco led to the importation of enslaved Africans to Virginia in the 17th century and the population of slaves grew from 100,000 to nearly one million during the 18th century.
Tobacco product manufacturers and dealers were present in every urban community in the nation. In Pittsburgh, a number of these enterprises imported slave produced tobacco and sold it with various paraphernalia to consume the product. George Weyman invented the smokeless tobacco snuff in the 1820s and sold it along with other goods at his Pittsburgh retail store. The popularity of cigarettes and cigars made the product even more useful in the mid-19th century.
Indigo was a centuries old textile tradition in West Africa by the time Europeans arrived in the 15th century. The plant produced a deep blue color that became associated with the wealthy. American colonists used enslaved Africans with knowledge of the technology to produce the dye in the Carolinas. It quickly became the second most profitable cash crop in South Carolina behind rice.
The economics of slavery are often overlooked. By closer examination of the great wealth accumulated by those involved can we get a greater understanding of the dynamics of slavery. This understanding could lend to greater knowledge of the struggles of African humanity as well as the development of the Americas.
Self-liberation became the most common form of resistance to slavery. Enslaved Africans and African Americans who sought to free themselves by running away are called freedom seekers.
In the history of the Underground Railroad, much is made of the role of activists, safe houses, and station operators both black and white. One of the most important lessons of this history is the agency of the enslaved to self-liberate from bondage. In the From Slavery to Freedom exhibition, the term “freedom seekers” or “runaway” is used instead of fugitive slaves to identify those who were seeking freedom and were determined from the outset to do it themselves. The focus is on the human determination to find freedom and the factors of this agency to do so. The Underground Railroad did not consume all those that sought freedom. For some, freedom was a spontaneous reaction to conditions in bondage and for others it was well planned clandestine strategy to strike a blow against slavery. Historians John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger drove home this point in their book, “Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation,” by insisting that the greatest act of resistance to slavery was to run away. In that context, this study poses a major question, “How did freedom seekers survive their journey?”
Overall, the historic record examines little of the detailed experiences of the runaways’ journey to freedom. Some narratives, memoirs, histories, recantations, interviews, and oral histories have revealed brief accounts of the day-to-day, moment-to-moment quest to live while on the run. Josiah Henson, a Maryland-born slave who escaped with his wife and children from bondage in Kentucky in 1830, details the strife of the freedom seeker, including the means to find food and shelter in the wilderness, in his 1849 autobiography. With a few exceptions, details of the means of survival are just now coming to light in the current scholarship. How was it possible to travel hundreds of miles, even with help, without nourishment, food, and rest? From Slavery to Freedom opinions that the greatest challenge to freedom seekers was the natural environment. This research examines various aspects of the encounter with the natural environment and methods used to survive the journey. To better understand this history, we have embraced an interdisciplinary study that includes anthropological, historical, botanical, and cultural approaches. These methods included knowledge of edible plants and flora as well as those used as medicine and shelter and the ability to read the terrain. Freedom seekers must conquer the wilderness or face being captured or killed by slave hunters and the dogs that accompanied them. Speculative numbers say that nearly 30,000 people escaped through the Underground Railroad. No one knows the number of those that perished in the wilderness, were killed by wild beast or slave catchers and their dogs, or succumbed to the challenge of the wilderness. The ability to sustain one’s life, to find food, shelter and aid was most important for success to freedom.
Our study concentrates on the region south of Pennsylvania from Virginia and Maryland to the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coasts. The region included the southern slave holding states and contained over 90% of the antebellum African American population. It included the states of Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Much of this territory covers severe terrain that includes a number of ranges of the Allegheny Mountains such as Blue Ridge, Piedmont, Catskills, and various sub-ranges, major rivers, lakes, streams, swamps, gorges, bluffs, and gullies, as well as the wild beasts that were plentiful in antebellum America. A significant amount of research on the plants and flora of the period centered on the resources at the Carnegie Mellon University Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation. The primary texts consulted were “Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Medical, Economical, and Agricultural” by Francis Peyre Porcher for the Surgeon General of the Confederacy in 1863; and “Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America” by Merritt Lyndon Fernald, et. al., 1943. These two texts and other secondary sources helped gather a greater understanding of the plants, flora, cash crops, and foods found naturally, or cultivated by people of African descent in slavery and freedom. Up to 50 plant species are illustrated from books, mostly from the period, mostly engravings, many of them hand colored, from the Carnegie Mellon University Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation.
The Hunt Institute provided sources written during the antebellum period that reflect the relationship of plants, flora, foods, and terrain with African Americans. This point was a primary factor in the research methodology. Our findings proved that there exists the skills and knowledge of plants, flora, and the environment to be a factor in the quest for freedom. It also strengthens the notion that black agency played a major part in the freedom seeker experience and that these brave souls were not totally dependent upon white help to find freedom. Other sources included slave narratives and secondary sources. Numerous slave narratives, memoirs, autobiographies, and histories mentioned the efforts by freedom seekers to find sustenance, safety, and aid while traveling to their place of refuge. James W.C. Pennington in his 1849 recollection of his escape from slavery in Maryland recalls his foraging to ward off starvation while he made his way from Western Maryland to New York.
In addition to the noted sources, the project had two advisors Jessica Harris and Michael Twitty whose expertise in African American culinary traditions and folk medicinal histories provided anecdotal and scholarly guidance to the project. Harris’ and Twitty’s input also opened the exhibit to explore more deeply the traditional culinary habits of African Americans at this time. A typical enslaved diet may have consisted of corn meal, flour, pork fat, molasses, and whatever greens, fruits, and vegetables could be added. Some enslaved were allowed to cultivate their own gardens, raise chickens, duck or turkey. Depending on the region and era, food knowledge retained from West Africa would have aided in food cultivation and culinary practices. American potatoes, peppers, root vegetables, okra, and peanuts were carryovers of African diets. Greens of various kinds were incorporated as well. The corn meal and flour was used to make hoe cakes or soup thickener. Salted pork fat or other parts of the hog were used basically as a seasoning of the greens and cakes. Former North Carolina slave Dorcas Griffith recounted in 1937 the weekly ration of food that consisted of, “…a half peck of meal and a pound o’ meat, a little oat meal, and canned grape juice, a half pound o’ coffee and no sugar or lard and no flour. Dey give us dat for a week’s eatin’.”
Freedom seekers would often carry provisions with them. Some of these were used to ward off their scent for dogs or to energize them on the journey. Alton Hughey, a white Presbyterian Minister confined to jail in Mississippi as a Federal sympathizer during the Civil War, talked about methods enslaved Africans taught him to ward off dogs while he was on the run.
“ hoping to reach the Federal lines. A company of cavalry, with a pack of fierce Siberian blood-hounds were sent out in search of me… The colored people and I searched all one day … to find some herbs with which I could have compounded a subtle poison, and by means of pieces of meat saturated with it, I could have destroyed a large pack of hounds.”
The enslaved had a history of survival in the wilderness, not only as freedom seekers, runaways, or fugitive slaves but also as inhabitants of the wilderness as maroons. Numerous autobiographies, memoirs, and narratives of former slaves help us to better understand the trek to freedom but provide very little detail as to the methods used to survive what would sometimes take almost a year to accomplish. In his autobiography of 1848, William Wells Brown talked of his own escape from slavery and his reliance on foraging for survival. These stories and recantations do not clearly identify how freedom seekers lived off the land. A more detailed survival can be found in the work of Sylviane Diouf in “Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons,” who explained the experiences of the Maroons who lived in the swamps and wilderness just out of reach of slavery. Diouf profiles the knowledge of the natural environment and skills to survive and the determination to be free from bondage. Judith A. Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff in their book, “In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World,” adds, “Plantation slaves and fugitive runaways alike depended on ethnobotanical knowledge for nourishment, healing, and their collective survival.”
Much is made of the traveling habits of freedom seekers. Many travelled at night after having found the daylight to reveal their journey. As a consequence, they ate and hunted at night. The night would conceal their fire for cooking and at times make nocturnal animals such as opossum, raccoons, and rodents their prey. The skill to survive in the wilderness all the while being chased as an escaped slave is challenge enough. According to Cheryl LaRoche, “The valleys of three parallel [mountain] ranges, the Cumberland, Allegheny, and Blue Ridge Mountains carved natural pathways leading north. Plenty of limestone caves could be found along the way and were used by escapees and white conductors alike.” LaRoche further explains that escape narratives mention the natural and manmade hiding places that included caves and waterways. Likewise, William Wells Brown recalls escaped slaves living in caves, giving birth there, and forming a most primitive existence, although as free people relying almost exclusively off their skills isolated from human contact. George Womble enslaved in Georgia recalls a runaway from the Womble plantation, “One of the slaves on the Womble Plantation took his wife and ran away. He and his wife lived in a cave that they found in the woods and there they raised a family. When freedom was declared and these children saw the light of the day for the first time they almost went blind.”
Historian Edda L. Fields-Black recalls the escape of Jack from a South Carolina rice plantation, “Leaving his family behind, he hid in the rice swamps ‘creeping along at night’ until he reached the woods, then hid in the bushes to evade the dogs. He ‘crawled down to the banks of the creeks and marshes,’ stood in water up to his chin for an entire day, and sank deep in black mud to mask his scent. Jack ‘cut a lot of bushes and a tough oak-tree for splints’ then spent two days weaving a basket-boat, which he caulked with cotton picked in the fields. He smeared the cotton with pitch made by ‘cutting into a tree and catching the gum, which [he] boiled in a kettle.’”
Jack demonstrated his knowledge and skill to survive in the wilderness and his determination to be free from bondage. Jack utilized the natural resources to aid in his escape, shelter, and quite possibly his nourishment. There were thousands of plants and flora familiar to African Americans that existed in the target area. Many of these plants and flora or ones similar were used by the enslaved on plantations or in their modest homes. Some of the plants and flora were used for food, tinctures, medicines, shelter, health aids, or other needs for survival. The most common use was food or medicine. The enslaved developed their own remedies for medical purposes and used various herbs, flora, and plants to make them. The WPA narratives of former slaves conducted in the late 1930s recall the use of herbs in folk remedies. Joseph Ringo a former slave of Mason County, Ky. recalls, "Dey used to mel all kines er home remdies fer ailmen's; red pepper tea fer colds, en oak bark en hickory bark fer stommick ails, en but, oh, chile, I cant member all sech home doctorin'." It has been said that Harriet Tubman carried a vile of paregoric with her when assisting freedom seekers to the north. This derivative of opium was used mostly on children so that they would sleep most of the journey.
But when freedom seekers reached their destination, many of them brought their culinary and medicinal remedy traditions with them. This factor helped to spread African American culinary traditions throughout the U.S. Wherever people went, they took their culinary traditions and adapted to their new environment. A significant number of early residencies of the Pittsburgh area were people from Maryland and Virginia. Pennsylvanias border-states, Maryland and Virginia, held diverse culinary traditions. The eastern shores of these states had remarkably different diets than the western part. According to Michael Twitty, the coastal diets of the Chesapeake region relied on the bounty of the Bay with fish and oysters as part of the diet along with peas, hominy, and various greens. In 1937, 105-year old former slave Parson Williams of Baltimore recalled his enslaved diet consisting of, “red herring and molasses.” The western plantation range of these states utilized less Bay area foods but the same culinary script. Greens, corn, peas, roots, and wild game such as possum, snakes, and turkey were part of the diet although on special occasions. Basically, regardless of where you were enslaved, life was hard and you made food out of what you could find or grow.
By examining the use of plants, flora and the wilderness for survival we have opened a new chapter in Underground Railroad history. Now the learning around the Underground Railroad is on the ground with freedom seekers. This microsite contains a list of plants and foods that were researched to have a relationship with the enslaved, freedom seekers and free people of color. Arranged by category: fruits, herbs, flora, nuts, trees, vegetables, cash crops, and medicines the list explores a history of survival and use of the natural environment to attain freedom.
Apples were a popular fruit found growing widely in the region. Various varieties were used as a food, for making cider, liquors, jellies, and to make medicine. Some varieties of apples were used to make remedies for various ailments. The wood was used in furniture making and architectural accessories.
The fruit of the crab apple is tart, sour and was often made into preserves. These small sour apples are not much to make a meal but can sustain life in the wilderness for a short period. James W. C. Pennington escaped slavery in Maryland in 1827 and made his way north through Pennsylvania. He later settled in New York and became the first African American graduate of Yale University. In his autobiography Pennington remarked, “… sour apples, and a draught of cold water, had produced anything but a favourable effect indeed, I suffered most of the day with severe symptoms of cramp.”
Grapes are in many varieties more during the antebellum period than now. The fruit grew both in the North and South in the mountains of North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee. Porcher opined that they were more suitable for southern growth to produce a better wine. Various varieties include: Scuppernong, Isabella, Catawba, Delaware, Diana, and Fox. Both wild and domesticated grapes were used to make wine, as food, vinegar, and preserves.
May-apple is found in rich swamp lands of the Carolinas and Virginia. No doubt this tree was found in the dismal swamp by Maroons. The enslaved made a medicine from the plant as well as a drink. The leaves can produce nausea in empty stomachs and the fruit is edible. The root is poisonous. Porcher reports, “We would invite the particular attention of planters to the extensive use of these medicines upon their plantations. We have caused them [medicines] to be used on one on which upward of a hundred negroes resided, and we found that during a period of seven months, including the warm months of summer, they were used in all cases, and apparently fulfilled every indication. No detailed statement of these could be obtained, as it was administered by one of their own number; but large quantities of them were required. Dora Franks, a slave in Monroe County, Mississippi, recalled the gathering of herbs for the sick, “When any of em would get sick dey would go to de woods an get herbs an roots an’ make tea for ‘em to drink. Hogwood an’ May apples was de bes thing.”
He goes on to support the use of the fruit for purposes of making a drink, “The soft pulp contained within the rind of the fruit has a very peculiar musky taste, which is relished by many persons. The pulp is squeezed into a wineglass, and with the addition of a little old Madeira and sugar, it is said to be equal to the luscious golden granadilla of the tropics.”
Red mulberry was used by the enslaved as a food, laxative, syrup, and medicine. William Ward a slave of Georgia Governor Joe Brown recalls slave’s beliefs in using wild berries to conjure one another by putting such in the food of others. Therefore berries could be edible or poisonous. Mulberry is an edible type and is an ingredient for wine as well.
The Paw Paw is native to the eastern United States. The Paw Paw fruit was eaten like custard and was known to grow in rich soils and along streams. It had medicinal properties as well. The unripen juice was made into a vermifuge to treat ulcers. The fruit was used as a marinade for meat. Porcher asserts that, “At Pittsburgh, a spirituous liquor has been made from the fruit”.
Pears were eaten and used to make liquor, cider, juice, jelly, and syrup. The wood of the tree was used to smoke meats, furniture, instruments, and utensils. Pear trees required low labor, low cost, and high revenue on the market. Slave labor made it possible to cultivate on many plantations and to make many of the above mentioned products.
Persimmons are an edible fruit. The bark was boiled and used to treat fever and diarrhea. Vinegar, jelly, tea, syrup, and breadstuffing were made from persimmon fruit. Persimmon was also used to make a beer. Lillian Williams, enslaved in Mississippi recalls, “Grandma kept a barrel to make locust and persimmon beer in.” Parson Williams who lived to one-hundred and fifteen recalled, “mother used to make beer out persimmon and cornhusk.” Charlie Davenport, enslaved at Second Creek, Mississippi recalls “Old mammy nearly always made a heap o’ dewberry an’ [per]simmon wine.”
A wild red raspberry is an edible fruit that was eaten as a fruit and from which was made preserves, jelly, marmalade, wine and liquor. The leaves are astringent and the root is a diuretic. A cordial beverage was made from blackberry and raspberry to ward off dysentery, a common and deadline illness during the Civil War.
Andromeda mariana, or stagger bush, was used as a medicinal remedy for herpes, and as a wash for ulcers and ground itch. Primarily to treat these and other skin diseases and infections with symptoms such as blisters, parasites, rashes, and other skin ailments. These ailments could be caused by lack of hygiene, stress, trauma and biological spreading. Andromeda mariana is a poisonous plant if eaten and was found growing native in South Carolina and Florida swamps and sandy soil. According to Francis Porcher in Resources of the Southern Fields and Forest, Medical, Economical, and Agricultural Journal, it would be applied as a concoction to make a wash and applied to the skin or infected area.
The roots of this plant are edible and it was used for food. Arrowhead, named because its above water leaves are shaped so is a plant grown in swamps or water similar to a Lilly. Porcher reports that the plant grew in the rice fields of coastal South Carolina along the Cooper River from the Sumpter district, vicinity of Charleston. It was also located in ditches and ponds of Georgia, and going north.
The leaves are sharp, biting to the taste and smell, caustic and bitter. The enslaved would employ them in dispersing scrofulous ulcers. The Chinese are said to cultivate it on account of the bulbous roots, which are eaten and it was used as food by the Indians. It is said that the leaves, applied to the breasts of nursing women, will tend to dispel the milk. The root of this plant is often of great length and contains starch. Sometimes called the water plantain, it is used by the vegetable practitioners as a demulcent, a soothing application for infected areas of the skin.
Asparagus or wild Asparagus should not be confused with the food used today. This wild variety of the plant may have physical characteristics as the food we are familiar with but the 19th century variety was used in much different applications than a compliment for a salmon dinner. Asparagus officinalis, grew natural along the Cooper River of South Carolina, St. John’s River basin in Florida, and others damp soil parts of the South. It was known to Native Americans and enslaved Africans for the medicinal and food properties it contained. A preparation of a syrup was used as a strong sedative in heart palpitations. Its diuretic property was well known and an account of the alcoholic fermentation from the branches producing a urine cleanse or kidney ailment remedy. Asparagus for coffee and tea was made by roasting the grounded ripe seeds of the plant. Porcher explains the “roots of the different species are subacid and mucilaginous when fresh; and a decoction of them has been employed as a domestic remedy in sore mouth and in affections of the throat; also considered as alexipharmic in snake bites. The roots are, however, edible when cooked, and the young shoots are a very good substitute for asparagus.”
Grown in the eastern part of the United States this plants habitat is forest both dry rocky and floodplains. Porcher observed this plant growing in South Carolina and noted, “the roots of the different species are subacid and mucilaginous when fresh; and a decoction of them has been employed as a domestic remedy in sore mouth and in affections of the throat; also considered as alexipharmic in snake bites.” The roots are cooked and eaten and the young shoots are a very good substitute for asparagus.
Grows abundantly in pine barrens and is collected in St. John's and Newbern, Berkley County, South Carolina during the month of July. The Butterfly Weed is a stimulant that has been used to treat rheumatism, chest ailments, catarrh, and pneumonia. It has also been used to treat dysentery. Porcher comments on the way antebellum doctors used the plant in their treatment:
“Shecut says that thirty grains of the powdered root at a dose was much esteemed in this disease. Dr. McBride, of St. John's, Berkley, South Carolina, experimented largely with it in pleurisy, generally finding it to act with advantage. Eberle used it; and Dr. Parker employed it for twenty years with continued confidence. In a communication from Dr. John Douglass, of Chester district, South Carolina, we have the results of the experiments of Mr. McKeown, who believes it expectorant, tonic, diaphoretic, and sudorific.”
The dandelion seems to be ubiquitous in growth as it seems to prosper everywhere. The plant is edible and has been used like a vegetable, medicine, weed, and food. The leaves are eaten in salads and as a potherb while the roots are used to make various medicinal treatments for numerous ailments and as a coffee substitute. Tinctures made from the roots treat jaundice, liver ailments, gall-bladder, spleen, kidney, uterin, and hepatitis. Available growth during the Spring and Summer, the plant became useful for runaways during those times of year. One can imagine the dandelion eaten before escape to cleans and energize the liver for the challenge of the trek to freedom.
Dock is an herbal flower used to make remedies for various ailments and is edible. Porcher notes that it grows around buildings similar to the dandelion. Dock root is a treatment for itch, syphilis, and as a laxative. The young plat leaves can be used in salads or as a potherb. The mature plant can be poisonous. The roots can be eaten as well but were used often to make various potions to treat ailments.
A leafing herb used as a food but could be toxic if eaten raw or unclean. The leaves, shoots, seeds, and flowers are edible. It is a sedative and diuretic used in hemorrhoids. It is mostly applied as a remedy for livestock’s wounds. It is known by many names, both folk and scientific. It is sometimes called: white goosefoot, wild spinach, frost blite, baconweed, muckweed, fat-hen, and pigweed.
Porcher notes that milkweed is found is all Confederate States. The pods produce a silk fiber similar and when woven with cotton is used to make articles of clothing like gloves or socks. It is used as a pillow stuffer. Since most enslaved had bare sleeping quarters and most times bedding made of corn shucks or hay. John Glover, a slave in South Carolina recalls the bedding on the Elijah Carson plantation, “Dem dat live in de quarter have lumber bed wid mattress made out of sacks en hay.”
Pepper Weed is sometimes called “field pepperwort” this is not a native plant of North America but has germinated here for some time. The leaves, shoots, and fruits of this plant are all edible. The peppery edge or bitterness is removed by first boiling the young shoots and leaves, and then soaking in water for two days. Cooked like spinach, it makes a nutritious vegetable. It is known to grow wildly among corn.
A garden purslane grows in yards and rich soils. Carney and Rosomoff noted purslane as one of the many foods Africans cultivated for subsistence. It is believed to have come to the Americas before Columbus. It is antiscorbutic, diuretic, and an antidote for poisoning from cantharides. It has long been used as a salad and potherb. The young shoots are gathered when from two to five inches long. A very desirable blue dye is made from it.
A substitute for sarsaparilla, the smilax plant is also similar to asparagus. Commonly called the Long-stalk Greenbrier, The roots and shoots are made into food. Southern Indians including the Seminoles boiled the roots to make meal.-->
Sorrell is a refrigerant and diuretic, and was employed as an article of diet. The young shoots may be eaten as a salad and the acidic taste is destroyed by drying. The bruised plant is often applied to sores, and it is thought to be very active in allaying inflammation--doubtless owing to its saline constituents. The stalks and leaves contain a number of acidic properties. It is also used in removing ink spots from cloth. The juice of its leaves makes a drink used to treat fever, and the leaves themselves, eaten freely as a salad, cool the blood, and act as a cure or a prevention of scurvy. It is also much used as a salad, and as a season for soups, broths, stews.
This plant is sometimes called wake robin, Indian turnip and dragon-root. The three-leaved Indian turnip s not to be confused with the root vegetable, this is an herb. It grows in moist woodland thickets. It is used as a medicinal remedy to treat inflammation of the mucous membranes, particularly pertussis and asthma. Porcher remarks, "In the chronic asthmatic affections of old people it is a remedy of very considerable value." The powder of the fresh root, made into a paste with honey or syrup, and placed in small quantities upon the tongue so as to be gradually diffused over the mouth and throat, is said to have proved useful in the aphthous sore throat of children. During times of famine the starch of this plant served as a nourishing ingredient for bread. Porcher explains, “It is only necessary to cleanse these roots, to scrape and pound them, and then to soak the pulp in a considerable quantity of water; a white sediment is deposited, which when washed and dried is a real starch.” It is also a poisonous plant and was used as such.
Wild Lettuce grows in damp soils. This herb will produce a discharge by the kidneys and skin. It was used as a treatment for menstruation in women. Often runaways would use wild lettuce to control and delay their menstrual cycles. Wild lettuce was an anesthetic as well and used similar to opiates. A potherb used for menstrual pain, urinary tract, calming for children, muscle and joint pain. The resin taken from flower is smoked or leaves are made into tea.
Senna was used as a coffee substitute, potherb, salad, seeds roasted and used as coffee often called the derogatory term, “Nigger Coffee.” Coffee Senna according to Porcher grows along river banks. Its seeds are roasted to make the coffee substitute and the leaves are parched or raw and added to soups, stews and salads.
Cat-Tail is a reed plant found in stagnant waters, lagoons, ponds and ditches. The roots are eaten and a mucus jelly is extracted to treat gonorrhea and dysentery. Utilitarian uses include the pollen and bark in the application of hats, mattresses, gloves and even paper.
Golden club is a water flower that grows in wetlands, swamps, and ponds. The roots and seeds are edible but must be roasted. Native Americans used this flower in their diets.
Sometimes called the Dog-toothed violet, Yellow adder’s tongue, or Trout lily. A tincture made from the roots was used to treat rheumatism. Cherokee doctors use it in the form of a poultice of the roots, or a salve, as a local application in allaying inflammation. The fibre is uncommonly strong, and is used for various purposes by enslaved on plantations: for making thongs for hanging up the heaviest hams, bacon, etc. In this case it may have been used as a substitute for hemp and cordage rope.
Sometimes called wild okra, it was used by the enslaved for making soup. The bruised leaves were used as application to soothe the skin like a lotion.
Called Adams root or bear grass this plant is part of the lily family of flora. A tincture of the roots is much employed in rheumatism. The "Cherokee doctors" use it in the form of a poultice of the roots, or a salve, as a local application in allaying inflammation. Porcher mentions, “The fibre is uncommonly strong, and is used for various purposes on plantations: for making thongs for hanging up the heaviest hams, bacon, etc.” Other sources mention that enslaved in Georgia and South Carolina had developed a rope or twine from the plant.
Technically the peanut is not a nut but a legume or bean. Though the earliest domesticated peanuts are traced to South America, peanuts became a popular food in West Africa where peanut oil, butter, and nuts are used. A popular garden crop, peanuts also became important for animal feed. Porcher accounts the American peanut was brought to America by the African. Its many uses exploited by Africans both slave and free. Clutches of the peanut accompanied escaping slaves for a source of protein. The ground-nut and bené make rich and nutritious soup, and act as substitutes for meat. They are often parched, and beaten up with sugar, and served as a condiment or dessert. The ground-nut was cultivated to some extent in South Carolina, and great use is made of it on the plantations as an article of food, and for various domestic purposes; it is exported with profit, but troublesome to prepare.
The black oak tree was used the same as the red oak. Its bark was the raw material that medicines and remedies were derived. Its bark was used in the process for tanning leather. Black oak grew throughout the old Confederate States and especially in the Great Dismal Swamp of Southern Virginia and Northern North Carolina. Jack a slave in Hilton Head, South Carolina used the oak to aid in his escape. According to historian Edda L. Fields-Black, Jack, “cut a lot of rushes and a tough oak-tree for splints” then spent two days weaving a basket-boat, which he caulked with cotton picked in the fields. He smeared the cotton with pitch made by “cutting into a tree and catching the gum, which [he] boiled in a kettle”.
The meat from the nut is used as a food, the leaves are used for medicine, oil is pressed from the seeds and the wood is used in construction and furniture making. Freedom seekers ate the nuts in the wilderness. Charlie Davenport, enslaved in Mississippi where he lived into to late 1930s to be one-hundred years old, recalls “Us little tykes would gather black walnuts in de woods an’ store them under de cabins to dry.”
The cabbage tree is a sea coastal tree grown plentifully along the coast of South Carolina near Charleston where hundreds of enslaved resided on plantations. The image of the tree is used on the state flag of South Carolina. Its leaves are used to make hats, nets, baskets, etc. The wood is used for logs, in structures such as forts, wharves, and under water structures. The leaves or palm of the tree is used in roof thatches. The cabbage or vegetable of the tree is edible when ripe. It is also used to make fertilizer.
The American chestnut tree produces an edible nut and grown throughout the territory from Florida to Pennsylvania. Eaten raw, roasted or boiled the chestnut was a source of protein. The roots contain an astringent agent and are boiled with milk to treat children diarrhea and teething. The nuts are also used in breads and as animal feed. The bark of the tree used as a product for tanning leather. The wood was used in various carpentry applications such as fence posts.
Hickory tree wood and bark was used to make dye, tools, soaps, baskets, food, oil, furniture, axe handles, wagons, and rope. The enslaved used the bark to make a yellow/olive colored dye for clothes. Tree bark was a common source for dyes. Julia Ann James an enslaved woman from Rockingham County, North Carolina recalls the method used by the enslaved to dye their clothes: “Us dyed our own cloth fum walnut hulls en wood, brush blossoms, en sometimes copper te help mek er diffu'ny colorin'.
The fruit of the Hickory was pleasant and pressed for lamp oil.
Indigo, a plant native to West Africa where dyes were made for clothing was cultivated in the slavocracy of colonial America producing the dye for popular men’s suits and other clothing made of linens. In addition to the dye the toxic plant was also cultivated for its medicinal properties as well. Aunt Margaret Bryant a South Carolina slave born before the Civil War remembers that her mother made fabric on the plantation and Margaret remembers her method: “I see my Ma dye with some bush they call ‘indigo,’ and black walnut bark.”
The Sugar maple is primarily a northern tree but had been found sparingly in South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and at the head waters of Cooper River. The sugar extracted from it is an article of trade and used medicinally also. The wood is esteemed in the manufacture of saddle-trees. The grain of the wood is fine and close, and when polished it has a silky luster. The bark was used in dyes.
Found in many parts of the region and was familiar to enslaved African Americans as a source for medicine, dye, and tanning of leather. The wood is used to make tools, furniture, machines, and utensils. The bark had medicinal and industrial applications. The nut, or acorn of the tree during the antebellum period had many uses many of which were applied by African Americans. Coffee was made from acorns and chicory mixture. The acorn coffee, which is made from roasted and ground acorns as a medicinal product. Native Americans used the crushed nuts in unleavened bread.
Porcher recalls, “I have myself found the bark of the tree of some service among the negroes, in several cases where a tonic astringent injection was required, using it in one of prolapsus uteri, where the organ became chafed and painful from exposure. The decoction of the bark, with sulphate of copper, is employed on the plantations to dye woollens of a green or black color, and for tanning leather.”
South Carolina slave Hector Smith recalls red oak bark being used as a remedy “dat dey used to bathe the lime wid,” for rheumatism.
This plant is referred as water-gum, tupelo, wild olive, or sour-gum. The roots are immersed in inundated soils and have been used as a substitute for cork. Found growing in swamps and floodplains of the region. The wood is used in machine construction (wheels, hubs, wagon parts) and for making bowls, dippers, mortars, and other utensils. A tree with a particular wood that was durable and flexible as well is derived a cork substitute. Porcher recommended the wood to make shoes and shoe soles for enslaved on South Carolina plantations to prevent foot disease. A number of enslaved in the WPA narratives mention brogans given to them once a year around Christmas time. Former slaves had commented that their shoes were made with wooden soles. North Carolina slave Patsy Mitchner referring to the shoes they wore as described as those Porcher mentions. “Our clothes was base an our sleepin laces wus jest bunks. Our shoes has wooden bottoms on em.” Likewise Milton Marshall, a South Carolina slave talks about the shoes given to slaves. “Our shoes was made by de shoemaker in the neighborhood who was name Liles. Dey was made wid wooden soles or bottoms. Dey tanned the leather or had it tanned in de neighborhood. Porcher mentions, “I had recommended it as a suitable material forshoes in my article in DeBow's Review, August, 1861, and have since had a number made from the wood of the roots for negroes residing on plantations in South Carolina. A good thing for our negroes.--It cannot be denied that a number of diseases must result from the wearing of leather shoes by our negroes, when engaged in out-door operations during cold weather, or in wet situations.” The tupelo shoes became a popular item for plantations. Mississippi planters made large orders of the shoes and found that they were warmer, more durable, and more impervious to water than the leather-soled.
This tree grows in dry places at higher elevations than the coast, flowering early in July, and producing a thick cluster of berries, which, when mature in early autumn, are covered with a whitish and acidic substance. The berries are used to make a medicinal syrup. The root and bark are used to make various remedies for ulcers, gonorrhea, sore throat, and antiseptic. The bark is also used to make a dye. Porcher asserts, "If the bark of the root is boiled in equal parts of milk and water, forming with flour a cataplasm, it will cure burns without leaving a scar." The bark and leaves were used in the making of shoe wax and the tanning of leather.
Butternut trees grew in the mountains of region. The inner bark of the root was used to make a laxative that proved effective as far back as General Francis Marion's camp during the Revolutionary War. It was effective treating dysentery a scourge during the Civil War. The rind of the fruit and the skin of the kernel were used to make remedies. The bark is strongest in the early summer. The leaves are dried and made into a powder that was used to produce an oil for the skin to aid stiffness. The enslaved were always producing remedies to treat the physical impact on their bodies. Porcher asserts, “The wood of the butternut is used for the sleepers and posts of frame houses and barns, for posts, and rail fences, troughs for cattle, etc.”
The Pine tree has been a staple of southern utility. Found in the mountains and swamps of South Carolina and other regions throughout the south, the soft wood tree has a fine grain. It is used for the inner work of houses, for boxes, cabinets, etc. "Preferred for the masts of vessels to all other wood." The pine cone provided nuts for breadstuffs and is sometimes referred as “emergency food.” The wood has little strength, gives a feeble hold to nails, and is liable to swell from humidity in the atmosphere; but on the other hand it is soft, light, easily wrought. In ornamental work and carving of every description the white pine is used; in fact, wherever a light wood is required. Masts are also made of it, and are exported to Liverpool, though not fully equal to those from Riga. The bowsprits and spars are made of white pine.
By the 16th century the Portuguese introduced Africans to corn, a plant native to the Americas. American cultivation of corn as a cash crop began a century later. Planted by large and small farms, corn sometimes used slave labor, but nowhere near the numbers required for sugar and cotton production. A popular food, it replaced rice as a major staple of the American diet. Made into corn meal, porridge, whiskey, bread, hoe cakes, and hominy, the farming of corn increased as the country spread west. Zea mays, a native crop cultivated by American Indians became exploited as a cash crop of the slave plantation system. A major product of Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, humans ate sweet corn, while field corn was used as feed for livestock. The enslaved often had bacon and corn cakes as the main meal of the long day. The corn meal porridge was called kush by North Carolina slave Anna Wright. Wright recalls, “Kush wus cornbread, cooked in de big griddle on de fireplace, mashed up wid raw onions, an ham gravy poured over hit.” Freedom seeker and abolitionist William Wells Brown recalled his escape from slavery and the meals he made of corn. “On the first night after my food was gone, I went to a barn on the road-side and there found some ears of corn. I took ten or twelve of them, and kept on my journey. During the next day, while in the woods, I roasted my corn and feasted upon it, thanking God that I was so well provided for.”
Peas were a popular food on slave plantations. These were edible foods for people and feed for livestock. The cow pea is one variety of the pant. It is cooked in soups and stews. In African American culture it is referred as black-eyed peas and has its own tradition as a festive food. A legume, this food provided protein for under-nourished slaves.
The use of hot peppers in the diet of the enslaved is a carry-over from Africa. African Americans derived pepper oil and vinegar, as well as medicinal remedies, from these peppers. The many varieties of hot peppers were used as a food and medicine. Escaping slaves would use it to throw their scent away from the hunting dogs on their trails. Joshua Dunbar, the father of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar was said to use cayenne pepper to make search dogs sneeze and throw them off the trail during his escape from slavery in Garrard County, Kentucky. The pepper was also described by John H. Aughey, of Tupelo, Mississippi in 1905 when recounting his escape from bondage in a Confederate regiment during the Civil war. “I was put in a Mississippi regiment. I deserted, hoping to reach the Federal lines….The colored people furnished me with cayenne pepper, onions, and matches, and I felt comparatively safe.” Hot pepper was an ingredient in folk remedies on plantations. Joseph Ringo, enslaved in Mason County Kentucky to John French recollects the remedies used: "Dey used to mel all kines er home remdies fer ailmen's; red pepper tea fer colds, en oak bark en hickory bark fer stommick ails, en but, oh, chile, I cant member all sech home doctorin'."
Okra is Africa’s gift to American cuisine. Okra pods were used in soup or stewed with meat, fish, and vegetables as a forerunner of gumbo. According to Porcher, the seeds were prepared as a coffee substitute on plantations throughout South Carolina. The leaves are used to make a clay that is applied to the aching or swollen part of the body and mucous passages. Okra was most likely transported to the Americas as a familiar food to feed the growing African enslaved population.
Wild onions similar to garlic have a pungent odor but were used widely in food. The odor would repel insects and used by runaways to mas their scents from dogs. Charlie Davenport a field slave in Second Creek, Mississippi recalls the dinner meal that was brought to the cotton fields. “When us was in de fiel’ two women ud come at dinner time wid basket filled wid hot pone, baked taters, corn roasted in de shucks, onion, fried squash, an b’iled pork.”
Popularly called pokeweed, this plant is found at certain times of the year and eaten as a green vegetable or as a salad, but only after being cooked, as it is poisonous if eaten raw. Fernald mentions the root as a poisonous plant that is used in medicines as a narcotic, emetic and can cause death. However dangerous it may be, African Americans had long made pokeweed a green potherb along with collard, mustard, and dandelion greens.
Rice has been grown since 300 B.C. in West Africa’s Guinea Coast area from the Senegambia region to Liberia. Used as a food onboard slave ships crossing the Atlantic, rice also became the major starchy food of colonial America. As colonists invested in growing rice, the expertise and skill of African rice growers became vital to South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana planters and they were enslaved on rice plantations in the American South. A major slave market, located in Charleston, South Carolina, specialized in the sale of African rice growers, exploited for their knowledge and for profit. Rice brought tremendous wealth to slaveholders of the low country including men like South Carolina legislator, Congressman and Governor, R.F.W. Allston. In addition to being a major food, rice was also used to make bread, and beverages. Porcher adds, “On the plantations of South Carolina much use is made of rice in this and other ways.” Porcher also notes that many enslaved on rice plantations were not generally furnished with the grain for food. The product was much valued as a cash crop and not as a food for enslaved. What rice the enslaved would consume may have come from their own fields or scant rations.
This plant is a Canada wild rice grown in deep marshes and ponds in Florida and northward. Porcher mentions, "It abounds in all the shallow streams of North America, feeds immense flocks of wild swans and other water-fowl, contributes largely to the support of the wandering tribes of Indians.” A northern wild rice Porcher promoted it for southern cultivation “to procure a new cereal,” undoubtedly impacting the slave economy.
American sweet potatoes are the starchy root vegetable that reminded many Africans of the yam in their own culture. They could be roasted in ashes, baked, boiled, mashed, fried, or added to soups and stews. Cooked potatoes were taken by runaways for sustenance.
Technically classified as a fruit, tomatoes are used primarily like a vegetable. The fruit of this plant is well known as an article of food. A slight acidic taste it induces constipation which in effect prevents diarrhea. The fruit was eaten raw, cooked, dried, or preserved. The leaves are poisonous causing vomiting. The seeds can irritate the stomach and intestine leading to ailments of the digestive tract.
The turnip’s green leaves and its root were eaten. The greens could be boiled with salt pork and the root boiled and roasted or added to other ingredients for stews. Turnips are native to West Africa and a carry-over for many African diets. Root vegetables such as turnips are flexible and can be cooked and will last for extended periods of time making it a likely food carried by freedom seekers. Anna Wright, a North Carolina slave mentions how turnip greens contributed to a meal, “cornmeal dumplings wus biled in de turnip greens.” Turnips, the root and the greens were part of an enslaved person’s meal. Dan Smith, enslaved in South Carolina mentions his typical meal consisted of, “…peas, ‘tatoes, corn bread, ‘lasses, butter milk, turnips, collars and fat meat.”
Sometimes called the wild yam it is derived from the West African name “Nyam” and grows in damp soils. Similar to Africans as their native yam or the sweet potato the tubers of this plant provided food and were prepared a number of ways; roasted, boiled, baked, or raw. The roots do not require storage in cellars and were rich and nutritious. Escaping slaves and maroons were known to carry these tubers for sustenance. The yam whether African or the sweet potato have remained traditional foods for African Americans.
Used for oil, fiber, fertilizer, animal feed and soup, Cotton became America’s major plantation cash crop. It provided the growth and economic development for textile mills in the American north and European markets as well. England was one of the major importers of America’s slave-raised cotton. It was so important to the American economy that during the Civil War it became a strategic act for the Union to attack the cotton industry of the Confederacy. Cotton was ubiquitous in the life of the Deep-South enslaved. Those who worked on massive cotton plantations knew cotton as the crop of their toil as well as the fabric that covered their bodies. Patsy Hyde a slave in Tennessee recalled, “All cul’ed people wore cotton goods an de younger boys run ‘round en der shurt tails.”
Sugar became the cash crop that fueled the transatlantic slave trade and the Industrial Revolution. The sweetener changed diets, and the products it produced—sugar, molasses, and rum— impacted the global economy. Sugar cane, or “white gold” as British colonists called it, became the most profitable cash crop of the New World plantation economy. During the 17th and 18th centuries the demand in Europe for sugar rose dramatically. As coffee became popular, sugar became the sweetener of choice. The juice of the cane was processed into sugar, molasses, or rum and sold in European markets, generating huge profits for investors. A tough plant to cultivate, harvest, and process, it took thousands of enslaved to produce sugar cane. The conditions and climate in the tropics and in South Carolina and Louisiana made the work laborious and dangerous. Life expectancy on some West Indian plantations was 7-10 years.
Tobacco, a native crop plant cultivated by American Indians became a cash crop of the slave plantation system. It was used for smoking, chewing, snuffing, and making rope. This plant grows in the eastern states including the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland, and Georgia. As a cash crop it was cultivated using slave labor in the same aforementioned states plus Kentucky. Porcher, in his infinite support of the southern slavocracy, mentions “Tobacco should be more extensively cultivated for home use, particularly for the comfort of our negroes in Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama.” He noticed it growing wildly in the country-side near Stateburg, South Carolina. At the time tobacco was called a narcotic and Porcher’s promotion among the enslaved may have been a form of control. Slave labor became key to each stage of production – planting, harvesting, processing, manufacturing, and shipping. As tobacco became more popular, the demand for slaves increased. Antebellum Pittsburgh had numerous tobacco shops such as Weyman’s that sold the product and smoking paraphernalia, linking the city’s merchants to Southern slave owners.
This plant has been used medicinally by the Native Americans and also used as food. The roots are dried and pounded into a powder is mixed with a liquid as a medicine and is giving to children suffering from cold or other ailments. Edible parts of the plant are its roots, leaves and flower.
Brown, William Wells. The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (Boston: R. F. Wallcut, 1863).
Carney, Judith A. and Richard Nichalos Rosomoff. In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009).
Diouf, Sylviane Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons (New York: NYU Press, 2014).
Johnston, James F. The Chemistry of Common Life (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1858).
LaRouche, Cheryl Janifer Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2014).
Meehan, Thomas The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States Volume 2. (Boston: 1879).
Pennington, James W. C. The Fugitive Blacksmith; or, Events in the History of James W. C. Pennington, Pastor of a Presbyterian Church, New York, Formerly a Slave in the State of Maryland, United States (London: Charles Gilpin, 1849).
Procher, Francis Peyre Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Medical, Economical, and Agricultural. Being also a Medical Botany of the Confederate States; with Practical Information on the Useful Properties of the Trees, Plants, and Shrubs (Charleston: Steam-Power Press of Evans & Cogswell, 1863).
Pittsburgh abolitionists mount a decades long struggle for freedom and human rights.
During the antebellum period from 1780 to 1861, Pittsburgh was seen by freedom seekers as a destination for freedom. The gradual abolition act of 1780 set in motion colonial and new states' initiatives in the North to abolish slavery. Pennsylvania was one of the first states to establish a law pertaining to the status of African Americans held in bondage. By gradually phasing out legal slavery, the Commonwealth hoped that over the coming decades of the 19th century, slavery would be eradicated from Pennsylvania. One condition of the law established indentured servitude for those born after March 1, 1780 to serve for 28 years. Actually, there was very little difference between slavery and indentured servitude on paper or in life. Between 1792 and 1857, Allegheny County recorded a number of emancipations, manumissions, indentures, certificates of freedom, and freedom papers for African Americans who were passing through the region or settling in the area. It was important for African Americans to have a legal document describing their status on file in the courts because of the danger of losing their freedom to slave catchers. The documents help understand the transition from slavery to freedom in Western Pennsylvania and also indicate that Pittsburgh was a destination for freedom.
Slavery had existed in Pennsylvania from its inception as a British colony in 1681. Various ethnic and religious groups such as the Quakers were the first Europeans colonists to abolish and denounce slavery in the colony. But that did not stop slave holding in Pittsburgh. Some of the leading citizens of antebellum Pittsburgh held slaves. Gen. James O'Hara, Conrad Winebiddle, John McKee, Isaac Craig, Gen. John Neville, and a host of wealthy land and property owners held slaves. Slavery was small in Pittsburgh when compared to the plantation economies of the southern states. By 1790, there were 3,737 enslaved in Pennsylvania with 878 recorded in the western counties and 795 statewide by 1810. The gradual abolition act made Pennsylvania a border state with the slave holding southern border of Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware important to the abolitionist cause. To its west, Ohio and the Northwest Territory were deemed free of slavery. The first half of the 19th century witnessed a continual battle along the borders between slaveholders and abolitionists as freedom seekers ventured into Pennsylvania and slave catchers followed them. This caused the Pennsylvania legislature to distinguish itself as a free state.
Pittsburgh's abolitionists knew and understood the issue of slavery. Both white and African American abolitionists worked for decades to aid freedom seekers and to protest slavery in America. Eventually many would be part of the network of the Underground Railroad. By the 1830s, Pittsburgh had a growing reputation as a fierce, militant abolitionist community. Pittsburghers were founding members of the American Anti-Slavery Society and through the Prince Hall Masons and African Methodist Episcopal Church, had established a commitment to the abolitionist cause. Lewis Woodson, John B. Vashon, Martin Delany, John Peck, George Vashon, Thomas Brown, William Webb, Halson Vashon, Susan Vashon, Francis Brown, and scores more were deeply invested in abolitionism. These people and others helped form a cohesive African American community that not only addressed slavery but other issues and concerns as well.
The community investment included forming organizations to not only aid the cause of abolition and freedom but also to assist in the cause of education, employment, homelessness, and other humanitarian needs of the newly free and destitute. In the African American community, organizations such as the Moral Reform Society, Philanthropic Society, and the Juvenile Anti-Slavery Society aided the efforts of abolitionists. During the height of abolitionist activities, a vigilance committee stood guard over rescue missions as slaves were brought into Pittsburgh.
On the front line of the Underground Railroad was the Monongahela House Hotel located at Smithfield and Water Streets along the river. It was built in 1840, became a casualty of the fire of 1845, rebuilt in 1847, and was staffed by African Americans of the vigilance committee including Thomas and Frances Scroggins Brown. The underground network at the hotel worked to free enslaved people as they came into the hotel with their owners. The practice intensified leading up to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The network was so effective that a southern slave holder who lost his 14-year-old slave girl while staying overnight at the hotel, wrote in several southern newspapers that slave holders should avoid Pittsburgh and the Monongahela Hotel for chance of losing their "property."
Local and national press aided the abolitionists' cause. Abolitionist and standard newspapers often printed stories about Pittsburgh activities. Newspapers such as the Colored American, North Star, the Pittsburgh Standard Visiter, and The Mystery covered issues of slavery, freedom, and the abolitionist cause. These newspapers are indications that African Americans understood the power of the press in propagating its anti-slavery position and building a collective of supporters for the cause. Counter to the abolitionists sheets was the Pittsburgh Gazette, and the Post newspapers that regularly printed runaway slave reward postings.
The issue of slavery and freedom would intensify in the 1850s. By September 1850, the conflict along the southern border of Pennsylvania erupted when the Compromise of 1850 and its Fugitive Slave Act gave more powers to slaveholders than ever before to intrude into the homes of citizens looking for fugitive slaves and provide little protection for free people of color from capture and later sold into slavery in the south. As a result, Pittsburgh would witness hundreds of its African American residents migrate to states west and north into Canada. Buxton, Ontario, Canada welcomed migrating Pittsburghers. By 1852, an African American committee of Pittsburghers had a replica of the Liberty Bell caste in a local foundry and sent to the Rev. William King's church in North Buxton. The Bell was inscribed with a message that read in part, "Presented to the Rev. Wm. King by the Coloured [sic] inhabitants of Pittsburgh for the Academy at Raleigh Canada West."
An emigration plan of a different kind was brewing among the African American community. In August 1854, the National Emigration Convention met for three days in Cleveland. Allegheny County accounted for the largest delegation at the meeting where only a plan for the departure of African American from the U.S. was discussed. The convention would settle on Africa as a place of emigration and send Martin Delany and three others to Yorubaland in the Oyo State of present day Nigeria to negotiate land leases with the chiefs of the Abeokuta. Leaders of the Pittsburgh underground were counted among the Emigration Convention members including William Webb, Samuel Bruce, Thomas Brown, Amelia Freeman, Charles Nighten, and Nimrod Dimmy. Each of these delegates played an important role in the organizing of the movement leading up to the Civil War.
Those Pittsburghers not involved with emigration continued to support the growth and development of the local African American community. Philanthropist Charles Avery provided financial support to religious and educational development of African Americans. He founded, funded, and taught at the Allegheny Institute beginning in 1849. Barbershop and Bath House owner John B. Vashon, who had spent decades fighting for the anti-slavery cause, died in 1853, a casualty of the Cholera epidemic. Lewis Woodson and John Peck were contributing letters to various newspapers including the Liberator, Colored American, and Frederick Douglass' Paper providing their perspective of the conditions placed on African Americans. Meanwhile, George Vashon would return to Pittsburgh and become principal of the African American public school in addition to his activist writings.
The 1850s could be called the decade of the launching pad to freedom. In the decade leading to the Civil War, the struggle for freedom continued to evolve. The impediments of the Fugitive Slave Law, violence between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions across the state and region, and the venture to find freedom in other lands occupied the mind of African Americans. By the time the Civil War commenced in 1861, hardened Black men in militias volunteered to settle the slavery issue once and for all. But it wasn't until 1863 that hundreds of Pittsburgh men went off to join the Massachusetts regiments and the United States Colored Troops at Camp William Penn and elsewhere that the fight for freedom would continue on the battlefield.
As the decade of the 1850s came to a close, the armed conflicts, emigration, and agitation over freedom folded into a readiness for war.
Abolitionist John Brown had travelled the eastern part of the U.S. and Ontario, Canada soliciting support for his planned raid on the Federal Arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Va. in 1859. Militias were formed throughout many African American communities to protect themselves from reprisal of the fugitive slave law of 1850. Before Lincoln was sworn in as the first Republican Party president in 1861, South Carolina had seceded from the Union and was followed by other southern slave-holding states. When Abraham Lincoln travelled to Washington, D.C. to assume his residence at the White House, he stopped in Pittsburgh for a night at the Monongahela House hotel. Within a few months, the nation was in a Civil War and the call for federal volunteers went out. Pittsburgh’s African American militias, the Fort Pitt Cadets, and the Hannibal Guards both volunteered their services to Gen. James Negley. Like many such militias throughout the north, they were rebuffed. It wasn't until 1863 that African American men from Pittsburgh were able to join the Union forces as United States Colored Troops (USCT) or troops of the Massachusetts 54th and 55th regiments.
Pittsburgh would contribute hundreds of African American men over the next two years to the Union army and naval forces. African American men on the home front would work to fortify the city against a pending Confederate invasion. In May 1862, after being rebuffed by Negley, Rufus Sibb Jones, the captain of the Fort Pitt Cadets, sent a letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton offering the militia to the Union efforts to garrison southern forts. In addition to the Cadets, Jones offered to recruit 200 men from Pittsburgh within 30 days. African American men were ready to fight because they saw the war as a war over slavery and they would fight to end it.
When Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into law on Jan. 1, 1863, it gave great jubilation to the masses. It also provided for the establishment of United States Colored Troops (USCT) providing the opportunity for African American men to join the ranks of the Union. The Federals then relied on the existing network of African American abolitionists to help recruit nearly 100,000 men. Pittsburgher Martin R. Delany came back from Canada to serve as a recruiter first for the Massachusetts 54th regiment then for other USCT regiments.
Pittsburgh would eventually contribute hundreds of men for the USCT. Alexander Kelly would join the 6th USCT at Camp William Penn and was eventually awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery in the battle of Chapin's Farm, New Market Heights, Va. in 1864. Rufus Sibb Jones would serve in the 8th USCT as a sergeant major in the Army of Virginia. Paris Burley served in Company B, 32nd USCT. The 32nd regiment served under terrible conditions, fighting both in battles against the Confederacy at Honey Hill and against white officers whose racist attitudes threatened their lives. Many of the 32nd died from disease and medical neglect. Burley was the son of Paris Burley who attended the National Emigration Convention in Cleveland in 1854.
However the Emancipation could not prevent the chaos and terror faced by African Americans in the Confederate South. Delany and others loudly denounced the atrocities inflicted on helpless emancipated slaves by white southerners. Between 1863 and 1865, reports of these atrocities prompted civilians like Martin R. Delany to approach Lincoln with solutions to protect the southern freed men. In turn, Lincoln commissioned Delany as a Major in the 104th United States Colored Infantry making him the highest ranking African American field soldier in U.S. military history. Delany would serve through the end of the war and then work for the Freedmen's Bureau until his commission was served.
After the war, the work of ratifying the reconstruction amendments to the Constitution was another cause for the network of abolitionists. The National Equal Rights League (NERL) was formed in 1864 and quickly began to work toward the constitutional abolition of slavery. Branches of the NERL were established in various states in the nation. In Pennsylvania, Pittsburghers George Vashon, Rev. John Peck, and B. F. Pulpress of Allegheny City became leaders of the NERL.
Over the next five years, the NERL would work to ratify the 13th (1865), 14th (1868), and 15th (1870) amendments to the Constitution. The 13th amendment ended slavery, the 14th allowed for citizenship, and the 15th allowed for male voting. The Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League would petition the legislature to ratify the 14th amendment and grant citizenship rights and suffrage to its black inhabitants. After the 15th amendment was ratified in Pennsylvania in 1869, African American Pittsburghers would hold a parade to commemorate the re-establishing of their suffrage rights that were violated in 1839. The “Jubilee of Freedom” parade was held in Pittsburgh and Allegheny City on April 26, 1870. The route for the parade began at Smithfield Street near the Monongahela House hotel and trekked into the Hill District then back downtown and across the 9th Street Bridge to Allegheny City then back across the Suspension Bridge to Liberty and Wood Streets where the event commenced. In 1873, another parade was held that continued east on Liberty commencing in Friendship Grove where a program and meeting were held. Events like these annual parades to commemorate the freedom of African Americans show that the local community was very much engaged in issues of freedom, civil rights, and citizenship. However much of the gains in the aftermath of the Civil War would come to an end and a renewed struggle would ensue changing the landscape of Black life forever.
From the end of the Civil War to the turn of the 20th century, former slaves, freemen, and the descendants of the enslaved would help transform Pittsburgh. During this period, the professional class continued to grow and support the founding of social organizations and institutions. George G. Turfley completed medical school in Ohio and opened a clinic in the Hill District where he would train a new generation of African American doctors. Mary Peck Bond co-founded a home for aged colored women eventually called the Lemington Home. A second generation of African American family-owned businesses cemented their economic and cultural significance in the area. J.R. Pulpress operated the Allegheny City Market fish dealer business started by his grandfather. Cumberland Posey established the Posey Steamboat Company, the Diamond Coal and Coke Company, and other businesses, becoming a philanthropist in the African American community. Despite the presence of Jim Crow laws, de facto segregation, and discrimination, African Americans persevered in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.
In the 35 years after the end of the Civil War and slavery, African Americans in Pittsburgh continued to struggle with the possibilities of real freedom. Southern migrants seeking freedom from the oppressions of the south began to swell the local communities. The Hill District was beginning to form as a migrant and immigrant community. A small enclave of "old Pittsburgh" families distinguished themselves from most migrants causing great schisms in the social network of everyday black life. However a collective agenda was beginning to form that would bring "old Pittsburghers" and migrants together to challenge the racism of early 20th century Pittsburgh.
The last 25 years of the 19th century witnessed a political and social drawback from the promise of the Reconstruction era. All gains by African Americans politically, socially, culturally, and economically were under attack by the white power structure.
After the election of Rutherford B. Hayes to the presidency in 1876, his policies to lift the federal occupancy in the South and provide amnesty to former Confederates opened the social and political resurgence of white oppression of millions of African Americans. White terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan roamed the southern countryside threatening and killing any advancement and hope to escape oppression. The court battles over civil rights escalated as southern states moved quickly to apply black codes and segregated laws. First installed were the voting rights violations, then social restrictions, followed by economic repression. As a result, millions of African Americans who could not escape or change the conditions in their society were trapped in a social, political, and economic subculture orchestrated by whites to protect white power and cultural attitudes.
Land ownership, enterprise, and businesses were under attack. Many were forced into sharecropping or slave-like labor teams. As a result, millions fled the South to the North and West searching for a freer society. These migrants contributed to the growth of northern cities like Pittsburgh. From 1900 to 1930, Pittsburgh witnessed an 80% increase in its African American population. They were drawn by the promise of good paying jobs, housing, and social freedoms. What many found was an increasingly segregated society that placed African Americans at the lower point of the economic totem pole. Even in the steel mills and its subsidiary industries, African Americans overwhelmingly received the lowest paid, unskilled, and most dangerous jobs even when they had experience working in mills in the South.
Not all migrants during this period were poor, uneducated, former sharecroppers, or unskilled laborers. Robert L. Vann migrated to Pittsburgh after attending Virginia Union University in Richmond. He was a recipient of the Avery scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh and became its first African American graduate of the School of Law. The industrious Cumberland “Cap” Posey, Sr., moved to Western Pennsylvania in 1892. Posey would own the Diamond Coal and Coke Company and become founding president of the Pittsburgh Courier Publishing Company in 1910.
However, the discrimination and restrictions of early 20th century Pittsburgh did not deter African Americans from striving to change the oppressive conditions in America. From 1900 to 1920, African Americans in Pittsburgh founded the NAACP branch, Urban League chapter, and the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper to help fight many of the discriminatory conditions and promote civil rights. Leaders in the African American community would fight for better housing for migrants, education, jobs, and against racism. The NAACP launched a nationwide anti-lynching campaign that involved the local NAACP branch as well as the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper. Local activists wore "stop lynching" buttons to support the national campaign against lynching. Steel mill workers in Aliquippa and Pittsburgh organized a local chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and brought the international president general, Marcus Garvey, to town. Their efforts to address the black working class were opposed by some in the black and white communities.
Just like the Civil War, hundreds of African American men from Pittsburgh would serve in the U.S. military during World War I. The national debate surrounding the war and African American support was centered on the escalating violence such as lynchings and the denial of civil and constitutional rights nationwide. President Woodrow Wilson welcomed segregation into federal offices and cut African American federal employment opportunities. Following the editorials of W.E. B. Dubois and others who called for African Americans to "close ranks" and set aside civil rights and support the war effort, thousands of African American men enlisted or were drafted into the military and served valiantly in Europe. The hope was that after the war, the democracy won would be extended to African Americans. Unfortunately, servicemen had to fight for civil rights while in the military and face white retribution upon their return from war.
The 351st Heavy Field Artillery Battalion made up mostly of Pittsburghers first protested their conditions at Camp Lee, Petersburg, Va., where white officers explained that they were expected to “do manual work only with picks, shovels, scrub floors.” The men “would not be armed, and might be employed one mile from front line trenches.” The men of the 351st wanted to fight and protested these conditions until they were transferred to Camp Meade where some became officers before serving in combat in France in 1918. Upon the return of the 351st to Pittsburgh at the end of the war, Mayor Babcock held a parade from the Hill District to downtown to recognize their bravery in war and democracy. Pittsburgh Lieutenants Donald C. Jefferson, John Carter Robinson, Wilson Primas, and William J. Curtis were officers in the 351st. Despite the parade, African American servicemen across the country were under attack in 1919 and the early 1920s by European immigrants and whites he felt the new aspect of freedom of their expressions were not to be tolerated in America.
On the frontline of civil rights battles and community advancement was the black church. The increase in population during the first thirty years of the 20th century also meant the increase in black churches. According to Joe Trotter and Jared Day, "By the late 1920s, African Americans maintained forty-five churches in the Hill District alone." Long standing churches such as Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME), John Wesley AME Zion, Grace Memorial Presbyterian, Metropolitan, and Rodman Street Baptist, Allen Chapel AME, and Brown Chapel AME was joined by great migration era churches Ebenezer, Beulah, Central, Jerusalem, Macedonia, and Mt. Ararat Baptist Churches, St. Benedict the Moor Catholic, and Homewood AME Zion that attended to the religious and spiritual needs of congregations but also provided social, cultural, and at times political leadership.
Those racial attitudes that showed defiance toward black advancement continued. Various communities in Pittsburgh would bar African American homeownership. Confining African Americans to a few communities like the Hill District, East Liberty, and sections of Homewood, this type of discrimination, called "redlining," was supported by the real estate industry and federally funded programs. When Robert L. Vann moved to Monticello Street in Homewood in 1924, his new neighbors quickly protested. They became eager to sell their own properties. Vann purchased a few homes on his street and resold them to other African American families. Trotter and Day recalled the Pittsburgh Public Schools not hiring African American teachers between 1881 and 1933. Former Pittsburgh Courier reporter and editor Frank Bolden recalled African American teachers had to leave town to find work because of the racist policies of the public schools. African Americans paid taxes that funded the schools yet were barred from pursuing teaching careers. This type of exploitation undermined African American advancement and handicapped students of color and others. Thousands of African Americans students would become teachers but were not hired to teach in Pittsburgh. It wasn't until 1936 that Pittsburgh Schools had African American teachers. The first of these teachers and administrators worked in Hill District schools.
African American organizing focused on social and political issues of the day as well. Voting rights for women was a main issue for African American women in the early 20th century. Daisy Lampkin was one of the main organizers for women's rights during this period. The Lucy Stone League, the National Association of Colored Women (later the National Council of Negro Women) served as her base of operations. Historian Leslie Patrick commented that Daisy Lampkin "was active on numerous fronts, both in her adopted Pittsburgh and throughout the nation. Her activism is believed to have begun with hosting a women's rights tea in her home in 1912, which led to her subsequent roles as a suffragist and member of the Negro Women's Equal Franchise Federation, campaigning for women's right to vote." Lampkin was a political activist, vice president of the Pittsburgh Courier, and the first field secretary for the NAACP in 1930.
Politically, African Americans were majority Republican since the Civil War. In 1932, Pittsburgh Courier editor Robert L. Vann, in a speech in Cleveland forecasted that African Americans would switch to the Democratic Party presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt because the Democrats were addressing issues impacting blacks. Decades of Republican apathy and exploitation of black voters were coming to an end. By 1923, Homer S. Brown graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. In 1934, he was elected to the state legislature and in 1949, he was appointed a judge in Allegheny County. Brown sat on the bench until his retirement in 1975. His political rise followed the movement of African Americans from the Republican to Democratic Party. Twenty-five years after Brown was elected to the state legislature, K. LeRoy Irvis was elected to represent the first district of Pittsburgh. Irvis would become speaker of the House in Harrisburg in 1977, only the second African American since John R. Lynch in South Carolina during reconstruction. Both Brown and Irvis witnessed the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s from their elected chairs.
Political opportunities were the result of a new phase of migration that took place from 1940 to 1970. African Americans in Pittsburgh expanded from 62,000 to 105,000 while the white population in the city declined. This meant more eligible voters for office holders, but the change was a slow process because African Americans were constituted into two legislative districts, the 1st and the 24th. The migration also impacted employment opportunities. Pittsburgh's great employer of the 20th century was the steel mills. For African Americans, very few worked beyond unskilled labor in the mills. Other occupations recorded the same struggle as eligible workers continued to be denied access to jobs despite having the qualifications. As a result of increased migration, lack of jobs, inadequate housing, unemployment, and slow income growth, civil and economic rights activists continued to advocate for equal rights for African Americans.
Political opportunities were the result of continued activism and a new phase of migration that took place from 1940 to 1970. African Americans in Pittsburgh expanded from 62,000 to 105,000 while the white population in the city declined.
This meant more eligible voters for office holders but the change was a slow process because African Americans were mostly constituted into two legislative districts, the 1st and the 24th. Homer S. Brown and K. LeRoy Irvis were able to transform the increased African American voter registrations into political office. Brown ascended to the state legislature in 1934 and Allegheny County Judge in 1949. Irvis was elected to the state legislature in 1959. He ascended to Speaker of the House in 1977. Irvis' political power held promise to transform the conditions of African Americans not only locally but statewide. It was during Brown's tenure in the state house that plans by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development were unveiled to change the face of the Hill District and set in motion a displacement of people, places, and resources in the community. This change in infrastructure and community life reverberated throughout greater Pittsburgh.
The migration also impacted employment opportunities. Pittsburgh's great employer of the 20th century was the steel mills. For African Americans very few worked beyond unskilled labor in the mills. Other occupations recorded the same struggle, as eligible workers continued to be denied access to jobs despite having the qualifications. As a result of increased migration, lack of jobs, inadequate housing, unemployment, and slow income growth, civil and economic rights activists continued to advocate for equal rights for African Americans. The industrial complex to support the war effort during World War II was in dire need of workers. According to historian Laurence Glasco, it took action by the Pittsburgh Courier and local politicians to open the doors for African American war industry workers.
Much of the activism of the post-war period grew from the activism during the war. Thousands of African American men and women joined the U.S. military from 1941 to 1945 to defend the Allied forces but also to fight for equality at home. This focus was championed by the Pittsburgh Courier that initiated the "Double V" campaign in 1942 for victory over the Axis forces and victory at home over racism and discrimination. After the war, returning servicemen and women expected changes in America that would show appreciation for their patriotism. The late 1940s witnessed desegregation in sports and military that fueled the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s. The Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954 did not change much in Pittsburgh as African American neighborhood schools ran on capacity while white schools ran at lower the 50%. Much like cities across the country, Pittsburgh took decades to address physical desegregation in its schools.
By the late 1960s, African American frustration with police brutality, unemployment, segregation, and economic discrimination boiled over. In the wake of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, the Hill District suffered eight days of rioting where buildings were set on fire and some stores were looted. Activists such as Jimmy Joe Robinson, Nate Smith, and Byrd Brown were joined by the Urban League, NAACP, and other activists to lead mass demonstrations and marches to address these issues. In Pittsburgh, the civil rights struggle was focused largely on economic discrimination. Construction tradesmen, medical professionals, access to capital, and covenants designed to limit economic mobility were all issues addressed by African Americans. As the city built Three Rivers Stadium and the U.S. Steel Building, African Americans were completely shut out of working on any of these projects. On Aug. 25, 1969, the umbrella group known as the Black Construction Coalition marched across the Manchester Bridge to Three Rivers Stadium in protest. Pittsburgh politicians, police, and construction workers were all defiant against the demonstrations and at times became violent.
In the early 1970s, the issue of racism in the city police department was confronted by the first African American city council president, Louis Mason, and others. According to Trotter, Mason asserted that police “were too ingrained with racism to change their ways.” Recognizing the police bias in emergency ambulance service for the Hill District, the Freedom House Ambulance Service was developed in 1968. A partnership with Presbyterian Hospital and funding from the Maurice Falk Fund, the Freedom House Ambulance Service was one of the first emergency medical services in the nation. Public school desegregation did not come easy. African American parents and students both demonstrated in the courts and corridors of their schools for better education, desegregation, and end to racial biases. In 1968, students at Westinghouse High School held a strike to demonstrate against racial policies and attitudes of its administration and sub-standard unequal education. Westinghouse was soon joined by Langley, Perry, Fifth Avenue, and Schenley High Schools.
Simultaneous to the struggle against racism, significant accomplishments were made in all phases of American society. In 1847, the Allegheny County Bar Association denied admittance to George Vashon. Sixty years later, the University of Pittsburgh School of Law welcomed its first African American graduate, Robert L. Vann, and first dean, William M. Carter, Jr., in 2012. Nearby, Duquesne University Law School graduated its first African American, Theron B. Hamilton in 1925, and first dean of the school, Ronald Davenport, in 1970.
Despite the struggles for equal rights as citizens of Pittsburgh, 20th century African Americans continued to develop and expand culturally and socially. Pittsburgh has great a legacy of internationally renowned jazz, opera, and entertaining artists. Its greatest impact was in jazz music. Very few cities around the country can count as many greats in "America's classical music" as Pittsburgh. To name but a few: Earl ‘Fatha' Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhorn, Erroll Garner, Roy Eldridge, Billy Eckstine, Henry Mancini, Slide Hampton, Dodo Marmarosa, Ahmad Jamal, Art Blake, Kenny Clarke, Paul Chambers, Maxine Sullivan, Dakota Staton, George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, and Walt Harper all represent a great legacy of jazz. Mary Cardwell Dawson was one of the many music teachers that helped produce some of the jazz greats. She was the founder of the National Negro Opera Company in 1941 before moving operations to Washington, D.C.
Social organizations played a major role in the African American community as philanthropists and community organizers. In the late 1890s, a number of male and female social groups were formed. In 1897, the Loendi Social and Literary Club was formed by middle class professional men and in 1910, the Frogs social club was formed by sons of the Loendi members. Fraternal organization such as the Prince Hall Masons can trace their beginnings back to the 1840s and they were joined by the Improved Benevolent Protective order of Elks, Odd Fellows, and Knights of Phythias in the early 1900s. The National Association of Colored Women Clubs was founded in 1896. In 1897, the two Pittsburgh clubs that were members of the NACW were the Pittsburgh and Allegheny Francis Ellen Watkins Harper League and the Women's Loyal Union of Pittsburgh. Ionia Smallwood of Allegheny City was part of the leadership in the local contingent of NACW.
The 1960s witnessed the emergence of Black Power groups and cultural nationalists. Black Power was used figuratively and literally, the act and the organization. Many groups expressed the renewed power of black protest while others saw Black Power as a trait. The United Movement for Progress formed in 1967 and was led by activist William "Bouie" Hayden. The Democratic Association of Black Brothers, a Black Panther type of organization, appeared in Pittsburgh during the Black Construction Coalition protest in 1969. The United Black Front headed by Clyde Jackson was part of the Black Construction Coalition. Its advocacy for economic rights helped secure up to 1,000 jobs in construction.
In 1986, the Metropolitan Pittsburgh Crusade for Voters sued the city over voting rights. Issues of police brutality continued with the 1995 murder of Jonny Gammage by police from Brentwood, Whitehall, and Baldwin. After a mistrial, the second trial was held in 99% white Lackawanna County where some held it as a venue that would insure the acquittal of all charged. All officers in the death of Jonny Gammage were acquitted by an all white jury. Many protested the biases in the jury and judges on the case. Even the U.S. Department of Justice refused to bring civil rights violation charges against the officers. The Jonny Gammage case is one of the numerous police brutality issues of this generation.
The first African American school board member was in 1966 when Richard F. Jones and Gladys McNairy joined the board. McNairy was the first black women to serve and in 1971 became the first African American president. Black parents and community leaders continued to press the school board to totally desegregate and equally fund schools in African American neighborhoods. In 2000, Pittsburgh received its first African American superintendent of schools. John Thompson was an experienced superintendent who turned around schools in Tulsa, Okla. before coming to Pittsburgh. But the layer of racism in the city would not allow him much room to implement his plans to turn schools around in Pittsburgh. When he promoted closing some schools in majority white sections of the city, he was met with condemnation. White critics complained about his salary, benefits, and professional habits.
It had been a long struggle for migrants and the children of migrants to find freedom and equality in Pittsburgh. As they continued to enjoy their lives, they also fought for rights denied them in almost all facets of society. Broadcaster Mal Goode once said that "there was a lot of negative living we [African Americans] had to do." In the 21st century, African Americans fully expected greater rights as American citizens, the first century in American history free from slavery or its de facto system known as Jim Crow. Great advances in all phases of American life would sometimes mask the continuation of racism, discrimination, and unequal treatment. The changes were a result of the century-long struggle from 1900 to 1999. In 2008, African Americans in Allegheny County overwhelmingly supported the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama. Trotter and Day commented that "ultimately, however, like many other Americans, African American supported Obama because his candidacy offered Pittsburgh, the state, and the nation the best hope for economic, political, and cultural renewal."
Made possible by the generous support of McAuley Ministries, Pittsburgh Mercy Health System’s grant-making foundation.
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______________. The Slave Ship: A Human History (New York: Viking Press, 2007).
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Franklin, John Hope and Loren Schweninger Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (New York: Oxford University, 1999)
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Glasco, Laurence A. ed. WPA History of the Negro in Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 2004).
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______________. High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011).
Hays, Samuel P. ed. City at the Point: Essays on the Social History of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989).
Henson, Josiah The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself (Boston: Arthur D. Phelps, 1849)
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Hornsby, Alton. Chronology of African American History: Significant Events and People from 1619 to the Present (Detroit: Gale Research, 1991).
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Irvine, Russell W. The African American Quest for Institutions of Higher Education Before the Civil War: The Forgotten Histories of the Ashmun Institute, Liberia College, and Avery College (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2010).
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Ketner, Joseph D. The Emergence of the African American Artist Robert S. Duncanson, 1821-1872 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994).
Killikelly, Sarah Hutchinson. The History of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh: B.C. & Gordon Montgomery Company, 1906).
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LaRouche, Cheryl Janifer Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2014)
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_____________. Slavery and African Life: Occidental, Oriental, and African Slave Trades (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1900).
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Paulsen, Gary Night John (New York; Bantam, Doubleday, Dell Books, 1993).
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Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. A Legacy in Bricks and Mortar (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, 1995).
Pettit, William V. Addresses delivered in the Hall of the House of Representatives, Harrisburg, Pa. on Tuesday evening, April 6, 1852. (Philadelphia: W.F. Geddes, 1852).
Procher, Francis Peyre Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Medical, Economical, and Agricultural. Being also a Medical Botany of the Confederate States; with Practical Information on the Useful Properties of the Trees, Plants, and Shrubs (Charleston: Steam-Power Press of Evans & Cogswell, 1863)
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Rodriguez, Junius P. Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political and Historical Encyclopedia
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Schenkel, Edwin N. The Negro in Allegheny County Pennsylvania from 1789 to 1813 (Master's Thesis: University of Pittsburgh, 1931).
Scully, Pamela Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.
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Stampp, Kenneth P. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-bellum South. (New York: Vintage Books, 1956).
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Trotter, Joe W. and Eric Ledell Smith eds. African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1997).
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________________________. The Great Migration in Historical Perspective: New Dimensions of Race, Class, and Gender. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).
Ullman, Victor. Martin Delany and the Beginnings of Black Nationalism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971).
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____________ ed. African Roots/American Cultures: Africa in the Creation of the Americas (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001).
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Wilmoth, Anne Greenwood Pittsburgh and the Blacks: A Short History, 1780-1875 (Thesis: Pennsylvania State University, 1975).
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Chalfant, Ella. "The Earliest Wills," The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine Volume 39 Number 1 (Spring 1956) 6-15.
Dahlinger, Charles W. "Rev. John Taylor and His Commonplace Book," The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine Volume 1 Number 1 (1918) 11.
Davis, George L. "Pittsburgh's Negro Troops in the Civil War." The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine 36 (1953) 101-113.
Delany, Martin. "Political Destiny of the Colored Race on the American Continent" In Index of the Report of the Select Committee on House Resolution No. 576, July, 1862 by the House of Representatives.
Ewing, Robert M. "Charles W. Dahlinger- A Memorial," The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine Volume 19 Number 1 (March 1936) 1-2.
Goodfellow, Donald M. "‘Old Man Eloquent' Visits Pittsburgh," The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine Volume 28 Number 3 (September 1945) 99-110.
Hogg, J. Bernard. "Presley Neville," The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine Volume 19 Number 1 (1936) 17-26.
Jacobs, Sylvia M. "Pan-African Consciousness Among Afro-Americans." In Black Studies: Theory, Method, and Cultural Perspectives, ed. Talmadge Anderson. Pullman: Washington State University Press, (1990) 68-75.
Long, E. John. "Johnny Appleseed in Pittsburgh," The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine Volume 13 Number 4 (1930) 256-260.
"Old Western Pennsylvania Documents of the Society of Friends," The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine Volume 9 Number 1 (January 1926) 53-59.
Riggs, Walter L. "The Early History of McKeesport," The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine Volume 13 Number 1 (January 1930) 8-13.
Rodney, Walter "West Africa and the Atlantic Slave Trade." Historical Association of Tanzania Paper no. 2, 1967.
Thornell, Paul N. D. "The Absent Ones and the Providers: A Biography of the Vashons" The Journal of Negro History Volume 83 Number 4 (Autumn 1998) 284-301.
Wagner, Pearl E. "Economic Conditions during the Whiskey Rebellion," The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine Volume 10 Number 4 (October 1927) 199-201.
Weisbord, Robert G. "Birth Control and the Black American: A Matter of Genocide?" Demography Volume 10 Number 4 (November 1973).
Places of Cultural Memory: African Reflections on the American Landscape, Conference Proceedings, May 9-12, 2001, Atlanta, Georgia. U.S. Department of the Interior-National Park Service.
The Christian Witness – Executive Committee of the Western Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.
Frederick Douglass' Paper published from 1851-1860 has numerous articles and editorials by Douglass, Delany and others about Pittsburgh and incidents in and around Pittsburgh.
The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison's paper can found at Boston Public Library
The Mystery newspaper: two copies are in the "miscellaneous Pittsburgh newspaper" file, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pa.
The North Star newspaper, which Delany reported for in the late 1840's is available on microfilm at the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture, N.Y., N.Y.
The Provincial Freeman published by the Shadd family in Chatham, West Ontario during Delany's stay there, contains articles by MRD. Available in the Chatham Public Library Special Collections.
One copy of the Charleston (S.C.) Independent published by MRD in 1875 is available at the American Antiquarian Society Library Special Collections.
Copies of the Christian Recorder the newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church containing MRD's letters are available on microfilm at the University of California, Berkeley Campus, Berkeley, CA.
Twitty, Michael Fighting Old Nep: The Foodways of Enslaved Afro-Marylanders, 1634-1864 (Rockville, MD: Michael Twitty, 2010)
"The Underground Railroad: The William Still Story" director, producer, writer Laine Drewery. Buffalo, NY: 90th Parallel Productions, 2011.
"Night John." Charles Burnett, producer. Hallmark Entertainment, 1996.
James Theodore Holly papers, 1861-1975. Library of Congress.