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When Pennsylvania partially abolished slavery in 1780, it established the Pittsburgh region — between the Southern slave states and Northern free states — as a destination for Black Americans looking for liberty.
“It set Western Pennsylvania up as the crossroads between slavery and freedom,” said Samuel Black, director of African-American programs at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.
From the founding of the country to the modern era, the region’s Black residents have helped shape the history of the United States.
Slavery and abolition
Though it is remembered as a free state, Pennsylvania was no stranger to slavery. While not reliant on slave labor like the plantation economies of the South, slave ownership was a sign of status among the rich and prominent.
The state’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 prohibited the importation of enslaved people. However, anyone who was already enslaved would remain so, and children of slaves would remain enslaved until they turned 28.
Westmoreland County’s two representatives to the state assembly voted against the act.
In 1790, there were 128 slaves in Westmoreland County, which had a total population of just over 16,000, according to historical records.
“A lot of people kind of get shocked when they find out how many slaves were in Pennsylvania,” said Anita Zanke, library coordinator for the Westmoreland County Historical Society. “They show up in the Hempfield Township tax records. You got taxed on your horses, your cows and your slaves.”
Enslaved people used to be sold at an auction block in front of the county courthouse in Greensburg. The county’s last known slave auction was held in 1817.
Southwestern Pennsylvania clung to slavery longer than counties in the east, according to historians. In some ways, the frontier counties in the Southwest had more in common with Virginia, where slavery was rampant, than they did with Philadelphia, where the abolition movement was thriving.
“Slavery took root in the western counties, and lingered there longer than anywhere else,” historian Edward Turner wrote in his 1911 book “The Negro in Pennsylvania.”
Fight for freedom
Despite slavery’s roots in the region, numerous abolitionist groups cropped up in and around Pittsburgh. Black leaders in Pittsburgh at the time included Martin Delany, a doctor, activist and newspaper publisher who went on to became a major in the Civil War, the first Black field grade officer in the Army.
Because of its proximity to Virginia, Southwestern Pennsylvania was an important destination for escaped slaves seeking freedom in the North along the Underground Railroad.
It sometimes seems as though every old house in the region is rumored to be a former Underground Railroad stop, according to Zanke. These rumors usually are impossible to prove.
“It’s very hard to document because they kept it a secret,” Zanke said.
However, there is evidence the Underground Railroad stopped in several local communities, including Mt. Pleasant, Ligonier and Hanna’s Town.
When the Fugitive Slave act of 1850 made it legal to pursue escaped slaves into free states, Black residents started creating their own militias to defend themselves. There were two such militias in the Pittsburgh area, according to Samuel Black — the Fort Pitt Cadets and the Hannibal Guards.
These militias were among the first to volunteer for the Union Army when the Civil War started in 1861, but they were not allowed to join because of their race, Black said.
It wasn’t until 1863, with the formation of the United States Colored Troops, that Black men were allowed to fight. Records show about 151 Allegheny County residents and 32 from Westmoreland joined the U.S. Colored Troops.
“Unlike World War I or World War II, where African Americans were largely restricted from combat, they were mostly in support services. In the Civil War, the U.S. Colored Troops were trained for combat,” Black said.
Leaders and legends
In the decades after the war, when Black Americans were free but segregation widespread, Black residents of Southwestern Pennsylvania created their own social groups and political organizations. They started businesses, and some rose to prominence, like Cumberland Posey, who in the early 1900s built barges, started his own coal company and became the first president of the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper.
His fame would eventually be eclipsed by his son.
Cumberland Posey Jr. was a sports legend. A star basketball player at Homestead High, Penn State and Duquesne University, Posey in the early 1910s founded and played for the Loendi Big Five basketball team. It went on to win The Colored Basketball World Championship five times.
He’s even better known for his career in baseball as a player, manager and eventual owner for the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League. Under his leadership, the team won nine straight championships between 1937 and ‘45.
Posey is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the Basketball Hall of Fame.
While the Grays were dominating baseball diamonds, some Black Pennsylvanians were taking to the sky.
George Allen was born in Tyrone, Blair County, in 1910. Inspired by the exploits of Charles Lindbergh and other daring pilots of the era, he dreamed of flight, eventually moving to New Alexandria so he could take flying classes at Latrobe Airport.
He scraped up enough money to buy a plane and became a pilot and flight instructor.
When World War II broke out, Allen’s poor eyesight kept him from becoming a fighter pilot, but his years of experience made him a perfect teacher. He became the chief instructor at the Tuskegee Army Air Fields in Alabama, teaching the mostly Black fighter pilots who would become known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
After the war he returned to his job at as a flight instructor in Latrobe, even giving lessons to Fred Rogers of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
Not long after Posey Jr. made sports history, New Kensington’s Willie Thrower did so. He was a star quarterback for New Kensington High School from 1945 to ‘48, losing only a single game.
When Michigan State University recruited Thrower, he became the first Black quarterback on a Big Ten team. In 1953, he signed with the Chicago Bears.
As a backup quarterback, he played only once. That single drive, in 1953, was enough to make him the first Black quarterback to play in the modern NFL. He drove the ball 45 yards against the San Francisco 49ers before he was benched in favor of starting quarterback George Blanda, a Youngwood native, who scored a touchdown.
Thrower was dropped after one season. He eventually moved back to New Kensington, where he started two taverns. It would be 15 years before Marlin Brisco joined the Denver Broncos to become the second Black professional quarterback.
Civil rights in the Steel City
The civil rights movement in Southwestern Pennsylvania looked much the same as it did in other parts of the country — but with a special focus on economics and property rights, according to Black of the Heinz History Center.
The Black Construction Coalition in the late 1960s protested at construction sites that would not hire Black workers. That included Three Rivers Stadium, the former home of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers.
“There’s a long history of unions discriminating against qualified African Americans,” Black said.
Pittsburgh is well-known for being at the center of the American labor movement, but the rights won by white workers were not always extended to their Black counterparts, he said.
“If you look deeper, you would say, ‘hey, this is no different than a lot of other things in the American society, especially in the 20th century, where discrimination is existing,’ ” he said.
The history of Southwestern Pennsylvania is inseparable from the history of its Black residents, Black added.
“African Americans were a vital part of the development of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania from the very beginning,” he said. “African Americans were here during the French and Indian War. They settled in Pittsburgh, operated businesses in the 18th and early 19th centuries … served in every war, were slaves, fought for freedom.”
Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jacob at 724-836-6646, email@example.com or via Twitter .
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