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Virtual Walking Tour Explores Early History Of Black People In Pittsburgh

From its best-known settlers and its industrial tycoons to its Eastern European immigrants, Pittsburgh is often typecast as a white city. But the history of African Americans here runs deep.

The racial-justice protests sweeping the nation this spring are a good time to remember that. So is Juneteenth, the holiday recalling June 19, 1865 -- the date the final enslaved African Americans learned they were emancipated.

Juneteenth is celebrated nationally, and is an official holiday in most states, including (as of 2019) Pennsylvania. This year, the big Juneteenth parade and festival staged by the group Stop the Violence Pittsburgh have been postponed until late August because of the coronavirus pandemic. But Juneteenth commemorations this week include the Freedom Day Walk, Stop the Violence’s livestreaming tour about the early history of black people in Pittsburgh.

A half-dozen presenters will each offer short talks at sites in and around Downtown, covering everything from the colonial era and the Underground Railroad to the early communities of free blacks in the Hill District.

Slavery was practiced in Pennsylvania into the 19th century; records from the late 1700s list hundreds of enslaved people in Southwest Pennsylvania. There were prominent free blacks here then, too, including Benjamin Richards, a butcher who sold goods to military posts, and became wealthy doing so. Richards and his son, Charles, were two of four blacks who signed the 1787 petition that led to the incorporation of Allegheny County.

The history of African Americans in colonial-era Pittsburgh will be discussed by Samuel W. Black, director of African-American programs at Heinz History Center, who’ll speak in Point State Park, near the Fort Pitt Museum. Robert Hill, a longtime administrator and educator at the University of Pittsburgh, will discuss Richards and the county’s black founding fathers, at Third and Wood streets.

Presenters on 19th-century black Pittsburgh include Pitt professor Laurence Glasco, who’ll discuss abolitionism here, in Market Square, and educator Sarah J. Martin, who’ll explore Pittsburgh’s role in the Underground Railroad, at sites including the former Bethel AME Church and the Monongahela House hotel.

“We think it’s very important that people know that Pittsburgh has been a city of sanctuary for a very long time,” said Martin, who also leads Underground Railroad reenactments. “Many of the escaping enslaved people came this way, and many of them settled here because of the activism of African Americans here, and the abolitionists who were also active in this area.”

“It’s like a sacred journey to us to remember the ancestors and the struggles they had after being enslaved here in America,” she said.

At Third and Market, actor Wali Jamal will give a presentation on legendary physician, soldier, newspaper publisher and abolitionist Martin R. Delany. On East Ohio Street, on the North Side, the Rev. Johnny Monroe will speak about Avery College, which was dedicated to the education of African Americans, and the Rev. Henry H. Garnet, the abolitionist and minister who was born into slavery and later served as the school’s president.

And Charlene Foggie-Barnett, of the Carnegie Museum of Art, and activist and entrepreneur Lakeisha Wolf will speak at Freedom Corner about the history of the black community in the Hill District, going back to such early settlements as Little Haiti and Arthurville.

The Freedom Day Walk will be livestreamed onthe Western Pennsylvania Juneteenth Facebook page starting at 1 p.m. Fri., June 19.

In-person Juneteenth events, including the Downtown parade and festival, are scheduled for Aug. 28-30. More information is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: