Black History and Culture is a special edition of 15 features devoted to the history and heritage of African Americans in Pennsylvania, from the American Revolution to World War II, published December 1977.

Throughout the antebellum period in the United States, two of the most volatile issues were the abolition of slavery and Blacks’ civil rights. Conventions, meetings, and written memorials to state and federal governmental bodies regarding these concerns abounded. Both Black and white residents of cities and towns became involved in the slavery question, while Black residents, primarily, involved themselves in the problems faced by free Blacks in a predominately white society. The manner in which those concerned went about meeting these challenges differed greatly from place to place. Some communities experienced violent riots while others, such as Pittsburgh, experienced relatively few violent reactions. How the Pittsburgh Black community met the challenges and the issues of the antebellum period and why the city as a whole experienced few violent outbursts is the subject of this article.

The institution of slavery presumably had little appeal for residents of the Pittsburgh area. The United States Census for Allegheny County noted only 159 slaves and nine free Blacks in 1790, and no slaves after 1820. This decline in the slave population was caused by Pennsylvania’s passage of the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1780, which provided that children born to slaves after the passage of the law be given their freedom when they reached twenty-eight years of age.

Between 1850 and 1870 the majority of Pittsburgh Blacks were native Pennsylvanians, unskilled workers, and holders of relatively little wealth in either real or personal property. Only two per cent of the Black citizens owned property in 1850, while nearly three of four Blacks were unskilled workers in the twenty-year interval. A few of the barbers and other Blacks in service occupations, however, owned in excess of $2,000 in wealth.*

Pittsburgh Blacks appear to have been self-sufficient. The incidence of pauperism, reported in 1837, appears to have been quite insignificant. An average of only three Black persons per year was supported by the general population at an annual cost of $75 each. Other Blacks who found themselves in need usually sought aid from among the four Pittsburgh Black benevolent societies. Certain activities indicated that Blacks supported their own and other institutions, sometimes through public fairs. The Black population held a fair to raise money for Doctor Passavant’s Infirmary, where people were invited regardless of race, color, or religious preference. Moreover, in 1837 Pittsburgh Blacks owned an African Methodist Episcopal Church valued at $10,000, as well as a Black schoolhouse and lot valued at $2,000. The Black community also helped support the city through property and poll taxes amounting in 1837 to $422, as well as a water tax amounting to $400 in that same year. In 1837 Pittsburgh Blacks paid rent amounting to $10,000. The Black population of Pitts­burgh also supported its own temperance society, with a membership of approximately 170 persons.

Geographically. the majority of the Pittsburgh Blacks lived in an area known as Hayti, which included portions of the third, sixth and seventh wards. However, the Black population was not limited to this area; smaller numbers of Blacks lived in almost every ward in the city. Neverthe­less, the majority of Pittsburgh Blacks (eighty-five per cent) found themselves in the third, sixth and seventh wards of the city. In 1850 these three wards were characterized by a population which included 1,662 Blacks, thirty-five of whom owned real property valued at a total of $61,015 or eighty-three per cent of the wealth owned by Pittsburgh Blacks in 1850. The jobs held by these Black residents included, among others: laborer (185), barber (55), cook (28), steward (17), boatman (16). waiter (9), teacher (2), clergyman (4), cupper and leecher (1), and banker (1).

The leaders of Pittsburgh’s Black community included the Rev. Lewis Woodson, John B. Vashon, George Vashon, John Peck, and Martin R. Delany. These Black leaders, along with others from the Black community, participated in their own organizations, such as the African Education Society, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, various temperance societies, the Hannibal Guards (a Black militia group), Black fraternal organizations, and antislavery organizations in which whites also participated.

The Rev. Lewis Woodson served the Black community as a minister in the A.M.E. Church, a teacher, and a barber. The son of Virginia slaves who had bought their freedom, Woodson came to Pittsburgh in 1831. Upon arriving in the city, he established a school for the education of Black children. In order to support his wife and children he also worked as a barber.

John B. Vashon, the son of a white Indian agent and a Black woman, spent his formative years in Virginia and later moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, with his family. Sometime afterward he moved to Pittsburgh, where he owned and operated a barber shop. His son, George Vashon, had the distinction of being the first Black graduate of Oberlin College (A.B., 1844; A.M., 1849). In 1847 the New York bar admitted him to practice law in that state. He practiced law in Syracuse for a time and then returned to Pittsburgh where he became president of Avery College, a Black college in Allegheny City which had been established by Charles Avery, a white philanthropist. In 1868 the Pittsburgh bar denied Vashon admission because of his color. Afterwards, he went to Washington. D.C., to practice law and to teach at Howard University.

John Peck, another Black leader in Pittsburgh, arrived in that city. shortly after Lewis Woodson and, as many other Blacks, opened a barber shop. He went on to become a leading wig maker.” His son, David, studied at Rush Medical College in Chicago and became one of the first Blacks to earn a medical degree.

Martin R. Delany, perhaps one of the best known of all the Pittsburgh Black leaders, came to Pittsburgh in 1831 and studied with Lewis Woodson. In 1834 Delany held membership in several Pittsburgh organizations established to aid the poor and elevate the Blacks of the city. These organizations included a temperance society, the first such society established by Blacks in Pittsburgh, and an academic society for Black youths. Delany began the study of medicine in Pittsburgh in 1835 under the tutelage of Dr. Joseph P. Gazzam and Dr. F. Julius LeMoyne, both white physicians. Delany interrupted this study for a time to work as a cupper and leecher, but resumed study in 1849. He entered Harvard Medical School in 1850, but less than a year later pressure on the administration from the white students, who objected to the presence of a Black man, forced him out of the school. Delany published a Black newspaper in Pittsburgh, the Mystery, from 1843-1847 and co-edited the North Star with Frederick Douglass until 1849. In 1859 he pursued his ever-present dream of emigration to Africa by exploring parts of that continent in search of a suitable place to settle. Unfortunately his plans never materialized. The Civil War began in the United States and Delany returned home. On February 8, 1865, he was commissioned as a major in the United States Army, one of the highest ranks attained by a Black soldier at that time.

These men formed the bedrock upon which the leader­ship of the Black community in Pittsburgh was based. Their voices, along with others, were heard in local anti-slavery meetings and State antislavery conventions through­out the antebellum period. They stood for the abolition of slavery and the recognition of civil rights for free Blacks.

They also stood for the attainment of these goals through non-violent means in Pittsburgh. even though racial violence was not totally absent in that city. This violence occurred primarily during the 1830’s and in­volved white mobs marching into the Hayti district and threatening the Black residents. In 1834 the Mayor of Pittsburgh sent the Duquesne Greys, a white militia group, into the Hayti district to disperse a white mob threatening the Blacks. One of the last riots took place on April 27. 1839. After this date, Mayor Jonas P. McClintock, a “law and order” mayor, and Martin R. Delany jointly appointed special Black and white forces to put down racial riots and arrest their leaders. The plan worked; racial violence subsided. During the 1850’s the Black militia unit, the Hannibal Guards, was able to parade through Pittsburgh without incident. In 1853 the Pittsburgh Black Free Masons paraded peacefully through both Allegheny City and Pitts­burgh, and the Black citizens of both these communities openly celebrated August 1, British Emancipation Day. considered by United States Blacks as their own Fourth of July, without any kind of racial violence.

The contribution the Pittsburgh Black leaders made to their community and to the Afro-American cause in the United States is reflected in their activities of the period. Between 1830 and 1860 Pittsburgh saw the formation of several antislavery societies. The Pittsburgh Anti-Slavery Society. organized in 1833, had among its charter members leaders of both the Black and white community: J. D. Gazzam, a white doctor, and friend and teacher of Martin R. Delany; Charles Avery, a white businessman, philanthropist, and founder of Avery College; J. L. Pressley, a white minister of the Associate Presbyterian Church in Pitts­burgh, which became the first Pittsburgh church to de­nounce the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850; J. B. Vashon; Lewis Woodson; Martin R. Delany; and A. D. Lewis, a Black minister. The membership of the newly formed organization totaled 180 and its efforts on behalf of anti­slavery involved both Blacks and whites in Pittsburgh and vicinity. The Rev. Lewis Woodson served as recording secretary for the organization. In 1840 the Board of Managers included A. D. Lewis, Martin R. Delany, Samuel Bruce (listed in the 1860 census as a seventy-year-old “office boy” with a total wealth of $1,300). and John Templeton, a Black teacher, all leaders of the Pittsburgh Black community.

The Pittsburgh Anti-Slavery Society was concerned with the welfare of the free Blacks in the United States as well as the slaves and could very well have been influenced in this direction by the Pittsburgh Black community. The Society, in which Black leaders took an active role, had as one of its objectives the abolition of all laws and customs which took away the liberty of any man, or deprived any person of the equal privileges due free citizens.

In contrast, the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society for the Western District, formed in 1837. did not list any Pittsburgh Black leader as a member, nor did it appear to have any concern for the civil rights of free blacks. Nevertheless, Pittsburgh Blacks, although not included on the Society’s Executive Committee, supported the organization’s antislavery work with individual pledges (as opposed to antislavery society pledges): Halson Vashon ($10), J. B. Vashon ($10), Abraham Lewis ($5), John Peck ($5). Lewis Woodson ($10), and George Gardner ($4).

Black leaders in Pittsburgh continued the pursuit of Black civil rights and in 1841 organized a State Convention of Colored Freemen of Pennsylvania, which met in Pittsburgh on August 23-25, 1841. Among those who organized and participated in the convention were: John Peck, John B. Vashon, Thomas A. Brown (listed in the 1850 census as a porter with real property in the amount of $1,100), John N. Templeton, Lewis Woodson. Martin R. Delany, George Gardner, and A. D. Lewis. John Peck ultimately served as president of the convention while Lewis Woodson and John Templeton served as two of the three secretaries.

The convention resolved not only to petition the Pennsylvania legislature for an amendment to the State con­stitution’s voting provision, but resolved to continue petitioning the legislature until it altered the constitution. Other matters discussed in the convention included education, temperance, Black employment, plans to further State-wide Black gatherings, and the like. The delegates to the Pittsburgh convention believed that Blacks could rise in society through education, and those present urged Black parents to educate their children, particularly in some useful trade. Moreover, the convention urged Black families to subscribe to and read several reputable newspapers.

The delegates also advocated temperance, undoubtedly due to the belief that temperance in spirits would indicate the Black man’s worth in society to the white population. The delegates also believed that money used for alcohol could be spent more wisely on education, a Black news­paper and the church.

The convention also discussed the problem of industrial­ization and its effect on Black workers. Industrialization meant that unskilled jobs in the city would increase and both Blacks and whites would compete for essentially the same positions, with racial disturbances as a possible result. Therefore, the convention urged those Blacks not gainfully employed as mechanics in the city to seek the rural life and cultivate the soil for a living. The delegates to the Pittsburgh Black convention believed that whites despised Blacks who crowded into the cities in search of money and who competed with whites in the market place. Moreover, the delegates noted that Black city dwellers lived closely together in unhealthy circumstances, constantly sought jobs, and of necessity often sent their children into the job market. The delegates believed that if Blacks could become independent farmers prejudice would melt away. Apparently no violence occurred between members of the Black convention and the white citizens of Pittsburgh. If any problems arose, they did not appear in either the convention proceedings or the local newspapers.

The proceedings of the 1841 Pittsburgh convention graphically illustrate the manner in which the Pittsburgh Black leadership perceived the attainment of its goals. That is, it felt that through self-improvement the Black community could become upwardly mobile without presenting an economic challenge to white society, thereby averting violent repercussions. The necessity for Black civil rights was unquestioned, but the idea that violence should be the means through which the Black community achieved these rights was anathema to the Black leadership.

However, not all of the Black leadership in Pittsburgh continued to have such faith in the “American system.” Some began to believe that Blacks could not obtain their civil rights in the United States and began to look outside the country for a better life. In 1852 Martin R. Delany wrote that he had lost alt hope in the United States and had lost all confidence in its people, with several (unnamed) exceptions. Lewis Woodson, on the other hand, believed in remaining in the United States and continuing to agitate for Black rights through antislavery organizations.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 placed a further strain on the Black community in Pittsburgh. It would seem that if it were to erupt in wholesale violence, no better provo­cation was available than the 1850 law. Violent reaction to the law, after all, occurred in Boston, Cincinnati, and Christiana, Pennsylvania. However, Pittsburgh Blacks remained relatively non-violent during the decade of the 1850’s. In fact, three major cases involving the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law were tried in Pittsburgh without racial disturbances.

The first case was tried in 1851 and involved an alleged fugitive slave named Woodson who supposedly was owned by a Rhoda B. Byers of Louisville, Kentucky. William Reed, Miss Byers’ former guardian, and Benjamin Rust, a policeman appointed by Miss Byers to return her property, came into the Pittsburgh area in search of the fugitive. As required by the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, they swore out a warrant for the purpose of pursuing and arresting Woodson. Rust eventually found Woodson in Rochester, Pennsylvania, and brought him before the circuit court in Pittsburgh. Both Blacks and whites attended the trial but none appeared to violate the law or the authority of the court. Although Woodson was alleged to have escaped from Rhoda Byers in June, 1849, and two prominent Pittsburgh Blacks, John Peck and Augustus Green, a minister, testified to knowing Woodson since 1848, the court chose to believe William Reed’s testimony that he had known Woodson as one of Miss Byers’ slaves; the court remanded Woodson to his owner, Rhoda Byers.

The crowd of spectators made no attempt to take Woodson away from his captors. Rather, led by the clerk of the circuit court, Sproul, Pittsburgh citizens set about raising the necessary funds to buy Woodson’s freedom. These persons raised approximately six hundred dollars, which Miss Byers accepted; Woodson returned to Penn­sylvania where he was the guest of honor at a special gathering attended by both Blacks and whites, who con­gratulated him on his safe return. The antislavery cause had been served without violence.

Another fugitive-slave case arose in Pittsburgh in 1853 when one Calvin Jones, a waiter in Pittsburgh, was accused of escaping from his master in Memphis, Tennessee, four years before. However, reputable witnesses, including Martin R. Delany, testified that they had known Jones for periods in excess of four years. The court found in favor of Calvin Jones. A large number of Blacks waiting outside the courtroom for the decision congratulated Jones on his victory, but took no violent action against those who would have sent him into slavery.

The last fugitive-slave case in Pittsburgh occurred in 1858 and involved charges of kidnapping against a white man, George Shaw. Shaw was alleged to be guilty of illegally enticing George W. Farris, a mulatto bricklayer and fugitive slave, into Alabama where Shaw turned him over to his owner. Mrs. Farris, a white woman, also charged Shaw with the attempted kidnapping of her children. During the course of the trial, one of the jurors became ill, but by the mutual consent of everyone involved the trial continued with eleven jurors. The jury ultimately found Shaw guilty of kidnapping, whereupon the defense moved for a mistrial on the grounds that a full jury had not been empaneled. The court of appeals ordered a new trial. The second jury found Shaw not guilty of kidnapping Farris to Alabama. This situation, on the eve of the Civil War, would seem to have been sufficient to ignite a full-scale riot. However, no civil disturbance occurred.

By and large Pittsburgh enjoyed a relatively peaceful antebellum period, due most probably to the fact that the leaders of the Pittsburgh Black community were more inclined to moral suasion than to racial violence. It is true that during the 1830’s white mobs invaded the Hayti district and wreaked violence on the Black community, but this was not a case of violence precipitated by Blacks; moreover, the rioting was ultimately quelled by cooperative efforts between the city’s Black and white leaders. This predisposition toward non-violence again became obvious in the 1841 Black convention and in the turbulent decade of the 1850’s after passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. If racial violence were to erupt in an organized manner, the three fugitive-slave cases cited above certainly would have provided the necessary provocation. However, no violence occurred. This is not to say that Pittsburgh’s Black leaders were unaware of or uninterested in the plight of the slave or the denial of civil rights to free Blacks. Pittsburgh Blacks continually participated in antislavery societies, meetings, and conventions for the purpose of promoting the abolition of slavery and acquiring equal rights for free Blacks. The efforts of Pittsburgh’s Black leaders were both tireless and without violence and made a significant contribution to the efforts in the North to bring about the demise of slavery and the recognition of Blacks’ civil rights.


* The amount of wealth held by Pittsburgh Blacks can be under­stood better when compared to the wealth of whites in Pittsburgh. In 1850 186 whites in Pittsburgh and Allegheny City (a city adjacent to Pittsburgh) owned real property valued at $4,650,000. In 1860 ninety per cent of white males over twenty-one years of age owned real and personal property valued at $1 to $999. How­ever, only 7.9 per cent owned wealth valued at between $5,000 and $9,000, and less than one per cent owned wealth valued at $50,000 or more. Nonetheless, it appears as though the white population owned significantly more wealth than did the Black population.)


The author wishes to acknowledge the support of a Ford Foundation Fellowship in Ethnic Studies to study Pittsburgh Blacks as well as valuable editorial comments from Carl Oblinger, Sally Balsley Just, and Phyllis Morgan Mort. Finally and most especially, she wishes to thank her parents, Harry and Martha Wilmoth, whose support made it all possible.


Dr. Ann G. Wilmoth received her Ph.D. in American history from The Pennsylvania State University in 1975. She is an urban planner with the Lancaster City Bureau of Planning, and teaches Afro-American history in the evening school of Franklin and Marshall College.