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Black History Month

Arthursville abolitionists ran Underground Railroad through Pittsburgh

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For wealthy white businessmen traveling through Pittsburgh in the mid-1800s, the Monongahela House was one of the region's finest hotels. Located where the old Blue Cross building stands at Fort Pitt and Smithfield Street, the Downtown rest stop was a busy, first-class establishment. Velvet curtains hung at the windows, scores of free black wait staff catered to guests' whims, and secret anti-slavery activity thrived amid its corridors.

  Lewis Woodson, pastor of the first African Methodist Church in Pittsburgh, was active in the antislavery movement in Arthursville.

The story of one slave being spirited to freedom has become the stuff of legend.

A woman - disguised as a man - was whisked through the hotel's dining room. She was led right past her owners, who were clueless as to the escape.

She was "stolen away" by Pittsburgh's Vigilance Committee, a group of urban black abolitionists who often "kidnapped" slaves to set them free through the Underground Railroad.

In Northern cities, free blacks were an aggressive force in conducting their brethren to freedom. The slave "stolen" from the Monongahela House is one example. Such daring would have been commonplace for black residents of Arthursville, a largely forgotten multi-ethnic Hill District neighborhood, which typified the urban Underground Railroad experience.

In the early 1800s, Arthursville was a hub of the Underground Railroad. It was a place where the black population was growing, united and politically savvy. Allied through religion, temperance societies and educational efforts, Arthursville connected the black working class and black business elite.

Lewis Woodson, a barber, educator and minister, was a member of the Vigilance Committee. So were bathhouse owner and barber John B. Vashon, described as the richest black man in Pittsburgh, and entrepreneur John Peck, an advocate of equal rights. Peck's Downtown oyster house was a refuge for runaway slaves.

All were black agents for the Underground Railroad, a loosely knit network of trails and hideouts that became a system through which abolitionists worked their plan to rescue and aid runaway slaves.

Much is told about the perils of enslaved Africans through the dismal woods: how they followed the "drinking gourd," were guided by the lyrics of the Negro spirituals and the hidden codes woven into quilts, and had clandestine stopovers at rural safehouses. Many such havens are documented to have dotted the Western Pennsylvania back country. They were stations set up by mostly white sympathizers - farmers and plantation owners - who shepherded and hid the runaways until they could leave for the next stop.

But the Underground Railroad was an urban experience, as well.

In this region, the bulk of the urban abolitionist involvement was in what is now the Hill District, said Laurence Glasco, history professor at the University of Pittsburgh. The railroad was so active and cunning in the area that it was reputed to be a place the slave hunters would avoid.

Because much of the railroad was cloaked in secrecy, there are no records of the number of fugitives who made the passage. But John Ford, education coordinator at the Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, estimates that between 1820-1860 more than 100,000 blacks escaped. Historians point out that up to 10 percent of them probably reached Canada trekking through stations in Western Pennsylvania.

Many, who didn't get to Canada, probably settled near Arthursville and other areas in the free states.

The crux of Arthursville laid between Centre and Bedford avenues. Its border would have ended at Arthur Street, a quiet little avenue that's now two blocks east of St. Benedict the Moor Church. But a portion of the community spilled into an area that became known as the Lower Hill. That section is now a parking lot as remnants of Arthursville's history were razed in the early '60s to make room for the Civic Arena.

During its heyday, though, said Glasco, "you have to remember the Hill was an upscale [racially mixed] neighborhood. Arthursville was a suburb of Downtown."

It was named for William Arthurs, a white well-to-do wagon maker who came to Pittsburgh in 1803 from Cumberland County.

Arthurs was also a knowledgeable land speculator, who in 1809 purchased the first of 100 parcels of land that he would eventually own in the middle and lower Hill District.

Census records show that in 1830 there were 472 blacks living in Pittsburgh. And, by 1837, Arthursville had become the heart of black society. There were 110 black families - 36 of whom owned property - living in what was the single largest African-American neighborhood in antebellum Pittsburgh.

By most accounts, the community was a prosperous, lush mecca for the city's black American population. They lived in handsome one- or two-story brick and frame homes. Most homeowners dug out cellars and other ravines to store supplies or hide the escaped slaves.

Several prominent blacks and antislavery proponents made their homes in Arthursville.

The home of minister and barber Benjamin Tucker Tanner, father of artist Henry O. Tanner, is said to have been a refuge for runaway blacks.

Black newspaperman Martin Delaney lived in the neighborhood for a while. Known as the father of black nationalism, Delaney was also a physician. After being one of the first blacks admitted to Harvard Medical School, Delaney returned to Arthursville and set up shop on Arthurs Street to provide black patients with "leeching, cupping and bleeding" and other medical assistance.

These wealthier black business owners lived side by side with their white counterparts on the neighborhood's shady, airy main streets. The black working class resided on the sidestreets, their homes often facing the alleyways. A small vegetable garden or apple or pear tree may have graced the yards.

In fact, Arthursville was a woodsy district peppered with small streams and groves of walnuts, said Arthur Fox, a local historian. He did excavation studies of Arthur Street in 1991 before the Crawford Square homes were built.

More than likely, Fox said, this closeknit black community would have been employed in a variety of professions: carpenters, blacksmiths, bricklayers, boot and shoemakers, plasterers, painters, tanners and curriers, coppersmiths, boatwrights, and farmers. The free blacks in Arthursville also may have labored in the stone quarry or in the local coal pits located about a half-mile away off Coal Hill Turnpike, which today is Centre Avenue.

Although Arthursville was a multiracial neighborhood, there wasn't much social integration. Black and white Pittsburghers didn't go to school together until 1874, and social gatherings were highly restrictive and segregated.

Other than the few whites who united with the abolitionists because of religious convictions, most were apathetic. They weren't alarmed to see a new black face in the neighborhood but they didn't care enough to turn over information to the slave catchers, either.

Black community leaders were united by their zeal for promoting education, vigilance activity and anti-slavery efforts, all of which would have revolved around the church.

By the mid-1840s, there were three black churches - all African Methodist congregations - in the neighborhood. The houses of worship are believed to have been refugee sites for escaped slaves. In fact, gossip of slave catchers coming to town was quickly spread through the pulpits and would alert fugitives that they should lay low.

The one issue that galvanized Arthursville - and eventually lead to its demise - was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

The law permitted the recapture and extradition of escaped slaves. It led unscrupulous traders to kidnap free blacks in the North and sell them into slavery in the South, claiming they were escapees. Anti-slavery advocates in Pittsburgh denounced the act and vowed to fight it.

Nevertheless, it struck a blow to the black population on the Hill. Terrified of being forced back into slavery, many left for the Promised Land of Canada and never looked back.

One historian noted that by Sept. 25, 1850, 100 fugitives had already left Pittsburgh for America's northern neighbor. "In one instance," he wrote, "the fear of recapture stimulated all the black waiters in one hotel to leave for Canada. By October, an additional 200 fugitives shipped out . . . They left in small parties armed with rifles . . . all pledged to defend one another to the death."

The Fugitive Slave Act had a huge impact, said Glasco. "With it, the black population of Pittsburgh dropped from 2,000 to 1,000."

The population mix of Arthursville had already begun to change following the great Pittsburgh fire of 1845, which pushed residents out of Downtown onto the Hill.

By the late 1850s, European immigrants were streaming into the area, as well.

This created a demand for more roads and businesses, which cut away earlier boundaries that marked neighborhoods in the hills east of Downtown.

Soon, all the communities melded into one area known as the Hill District, and Arthursville faded into history.

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