Black History Eyed With Look Back on Civil War

With an interest in looking at historic events from an African American perspective, Samuel W. Black of Pittsburgh appeared in Wheeling Tuesday, Feb. 11, to discuss slavery and freedom in the tri-state area.

“Much of our common understanding of the American Civil War is centered on the blue and the gray. But what about the black?” he asked. The meaning of the equality clause in the Declaration of Independence “was not lost on African Americans,” even as they dealt with marginalization in society, he said.

Black, director of African American programs at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, gave a presentation for the Ohio County Public Library’s Lunch With Books series. He organized the center’s exhibit, “The Civil War in Pennsylvania: The African American Experience,” and edited a book of the same title.

The exhibit, which opened in November 2012, has garnered four awards. The companion book is nominated for another award, he said.

After working on these two projects, Black said he realized that “slavery was much more horrific than my previous perceptions.” He observed that the most overlooked aspect of slavery is its impact on women and children. He added, “No museum has looked at slavery into the sex trade during the antebellum period.”

The center’s exhibit begins in Africa; its next section deals with the trauma of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in which “12 million souls” were forced to embark upon slave ships that were, in essence, floating prisons, he said.

Numerous slave auctions were set up in cities, with great wealth being created in the slave economy. “Colonial America depended upon slavery for survival,” he said. “Every economic venture in early America was buttressed by slavery.”

Slaves worked on plantations, in furniture-making businesses, in the coal mines and iron foundries in western Virginia and on the crews of riverboats, he said, adding that financiers of the American Revolution were slave owners.

Black, who also serves as national president of the Association of African American Museums, said George Washington owned plantations in Fayette County, Pa., and lived with slaves in Philadelphia during his presidency, circumventing the commonwealth’s anti-slavery laws.

Pennsylvania passed an act in 1780, setting forth gradual emancipation of slaves. In 1788, a more stringent law was enacted, requiring owners to register their slaves. In the area that is now western Pennsylvania, the borders between Virginia and Pennsylvania were unclear, and disputes over slavery ensued, he indicated.

As slavery in the South influenced politics, 30,000 people used the Underground Railroad to flee from slavery to freedom, he said. Pittsburgh abolitionists were in the thick of the conflict. By the 1820s, “Pittsburgh was increasingly a destination for freedom,” he said.

With implementation of the Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scott verdict in the 1850s, abolitionists’ efforts increased. Black cited two incidents from 1851: a man who was accused of being a slave in Wheeling was returned to Pittsburgh, and a runaway slave from Wellsburg was pursued to Pittsburgh where a bathhouse owner raised $200 to buy the man’s freedom. Such incidents “strengthened the resolve of abolitionists,” he said.

Black also recalled the case of Sara Lucy Bagby, a slave who fled from Wheeling to Cleveland in 1860, but was returned by the court to her owner. She became known as the last fugitive to be brought back to the South before the war, he noted.

From the beginning of the Civil War, African Americans volunteered for the Union military, but were rebuffed in almost every instance, he said.

In 1863, the U.S. Colored Troops were formed, and Martin R. Delany, a free black who had been a newspaper editor and abolitionist in Pittsburgh, served as a recruiter. Delany became the highest-ranking African American field officer in the war, Black said.