The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad in Pittsburgh


Bigham House, Chatham Village

Sam Bisno, Editor-in-Chief

If you know me, you know I’m white. If you don’t know me, I’m white. And, no doubt due in large part to my whiteness, I am shamefully ignorant when it comes to African American history. Last December, I embarked on a mission to change that. Today I’ll be sharing my findings.

When you think of Pittsburgh’s history, more than likely several things come to mind. Sports. Steel. Hills. Etcetera. What most likely does not come to mind is its pervasive and deep-rooted involvement in the Underground Railroad. At least, that was certainly true for me prior to my endeavors. As it turns out, our city was actually a hub for runaway slave activity – and the remnants are all there, if you just do a little digging. Let’s begin.

The first stop on my trip was at the Heinz History Center for an exhibit on black history in Western Pennsylvania. At its founding, the colony was certainly not “free,” but as time progressed the practice of slavery began to decline, most notably with the passage of the Gradual Abolition Act in 1780. As early as the late eighteenth century, but predominantly during the 1830s on through the Civil War, slaves that managed to escape from cotton, tobacco rice, sugar, corn, and cattle plantations in the South often sought refuge in Pittsburgh, where agents of the Underground Railroad would acquire for them a domicile, work, or at the very least a place to rest before continuing further North. Local militant abolitionist groups such as the Anti-Slavery Society reached their zenith at the time, and the radical activity of the region attracted many.

That being said, Pittsburgh was no paradise. Without so-called “freedom papers,” ex-slaves had no way of proving their emancipation, and slave-catching ran rampant. Flyers from slave owners whose “property” had fled and who were offering money for their return littered the walls of the museum. Descriptions read, “Ranaway from the subscriber on the 4th of May last, from Pittsburgh, a Negro Woman named Grace, about 26 years of age, scarred on each arm from the elbows, and on the backs of her hands, occasioned by a burn,” and, “Living in Washington County, Pennsylvania, near Canonsburgh, a Negro man by the name of Bob, about 6 feet high, had on when he went away, a pair of patent cord pantaloons, a striped cotton round about, a swansdown vest, and a fur hat.”

I began to explore the city as a whole. I started at the Point, where many fugitive slaves would arrive, with very few material possessions and without any knowledge of to how to continue from there. Frequently, they would make their way to Market Square, which at the time was home to a robust community of African American businesses, such as Martin Delany’s The Mystery Newspaper (which would later merge with Frederick Douglass’s North Star), as well as a burgeoning abolitionist movement. This made it very easy to blend in – due to the omnipresence of slave catching, this was the number one priority. A sort of “makeover” process would take place, in which newly freed escapees would be dressed in typical attire and given fake cards so as to avoid being identified.

It was truly shocking to see how many of the signs of this era exist to this day. In the pavement, one block stood out from the rest, dulled by countless hurried footsteps, half-covered with snow – a visual tribute to Pittsburgh’s Underground Railroad scene. Titled simply “North Star”, it read as follows: “This LED lighting feature commemorates Pittsburgh and the market Square area as a site of Abolitionist and Underground Railroad activity. The North Star was used by escaping slaves to find their way to freedom in the North. Here, the Big and Little Dippers are positioned as they would have been at 8 P.M., June 2, 1835, which is the first recorded meeting of the Pittsburgh Anti-Slavery Society.” I could not help but wonder to myself how many times I had walked past this little, unassuming plaque without ever bothering to look down.

Once again, I followed the trail left by so many ex-slaves fleeing to Pittsburgh; this time my destination was the Hill District. After being “made over,” countless African Americans would come here and attempt to start over, in hopes of finding a place to stay and any work they could get their hands on. Here were the homes of the aforementioned Martin Delaney, as well as August Wilson, of which the latter still stands, a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission sign watching over it, paying homage to the great playwright. In fact, as I made my way from the countless tributes to Wilson scattered throughout the neighborhood – a recreation of the famous red door belonging to the recurring character Aunt Ester, a mosaic dedicated to his works, a mural claiming an entire side of a house – I began to notice just how many such signs populate the area, each celebrating a different prominent Pittsburgh black person, in particular Robert Lee Van, publisher and editor of the Pittsburgh Courier and special assistant to the U.S. Attorney General from 1933-1935, and Frank E. Bolden, an eminent journalist during World War II. Again, I could not help but feel overcome by my own blindness – so many significant figures that I had never heard of, when all I had had to do was open my eyes.

The Bigham House in the secluded Chatham Village of Mount Washington served as another hotspot for Underground Railroad activity, as the owners made a point of employing freedom seekers, and equipped the site with escape routes and hiding spots in case the need arose. Though I couldn’t actually enter the house, its sheer enormity was breathtaking, and a stroll around to the back revealed said precautions. Later, during the steel boom, the town would become a center for union blue-collar laborers.

Lastly, I headed to Washington Country. About an hour later, I was standing at the doorstep of the LeMoyne house, fittingly named after its maiden inhabitant, Julius F. LeMoyne. Apart from being the brains behind the first crematorium in the United States, the co-founder of the historically black LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Tennessee, and the 1840 Liberty Party nominee for Vice President, LeMoyne was an ardent supporter of the Underground Railroad movement of Western Pennsylvania. Not only was he the president of the Washington Anti-Slavery Society from 1835-1837 and the regional agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society, but he acted as a conductor of sorts for the network of refugees moving north. In his home, one can find a bed under which harbored slaves once hid when an inspector came for a surprise visit, as well as a well that tells a similar tale. For the most part, however, LeMoyne focused on the bigger picture; his stature meant that he was constantly being watched, so instead of helping individual runaways, he spent his time arranging the transport of large groups.

It was truly empowering to uncover these stories and, as my journey progressed, it became increasingly clear just how little I actually knew about the history of my own hometown. Above all else, my exploration revealed one theme: I need to do more to step outside of my comfort zone and allow these truths, especially when they regard perhaps both our country’s greatest stain – slavery – and greatest triumph – its destruction – to invade my sheltered existence. Indeed, I think that most everyone could stand to do the same.