In Pittsburgh, the land where the former Civic Arena was being often referred to as the Lower Hill. In the Early 1800’s this area was called Arthursville. Arthursville was a racially mixed area, essentially a suburb of Pittsburgh at the time, and a popular place for middle class free African-Americans to settle. It was also an important and busy hub for the Underground Railroad. A group called the “Vigilance Committee,” made up of free African-American business owners coordinated a refuge for runaway slaves in Arthursville. All of the members of the Vigilance Committee were agents of the Underground Railroad. Most notable of this group were; Lewis Woodson who was a barber, teacher and the first African Methodist church in Pittsburgh, John Peck owner of the Peck Oyster House in Market Square and John B. Vahson who was believed to be the wealthiest black man in Pittsburgh at that time. By the mid 1830’s Arthursville was the heart of African-American society in the region. Many of the African-American home owners had dug out basements or ravines on their property as a place for storage of supplies for their houses, these areas were also largely used to hide runaway slaves traveling on the Underground Railroad. Arthursville became known as a place that fugitive slave hunters dare not go, the community was tight lipped and did not take kindly to outsiders with bad intent.
Another important location in regard to the Underground Railroad in Pittsburgh was the Monongahela House, an upscale hotel not far from Wharf Street, which is now Fort Pitt Boulevard. The Monongahela Wharf was the landing area for riverboats and supply boats that came up the Ohio from the Mississippi. The Monongahela house was a short walk from the wharf, sitting on the corner of Smithfield and Wharf Street. The Monongahela House hosted many of the American elite including Presidents and visiting royalty. The Monongahela House hosted many slave owners traveling through Pittsburgh as well. The hotel employed a large number of free African-Americans in the many positions needed to run a posh hotel.
The African American employees of the Monongahela House also became a secret army for the Underground Railroad. There are many stories of the staff meeting slaves traveling with their masters, they would then assist them in hiding and sneak them out of the hotel at night and travel a short distance to Arthursville, Vashon’s Bathhouse or to Peck’s Oyster House where they would receive the assistance of the great network of the Underground railroad in the region to escape to Canada. There is a story about a female slave who had been assisted in escaping while her master was at dinner. The staff of the hotel assisted her in dressing as a man an accompanied her as she walked through the dining room, right past her master without him realizing it.
The Monongahela House itself was not a part of the Underground Railroad, though the ownership seemed very sympathetic to the abolitionist cause. Martin Delaney, a well-known abolitionist was called to the hotel one evening to assist in a dispute. Abolition activists had witnessed the capture of a slave by a bounty hunter. Delaney arrived and gathered a crowd which again freed her from her captors and hurried her away to a safe house. In February of 1861, Abraham Lincoln was on his way to Washington D.C. to be sworn in as the President. He was delayed in Pittsburgh due to poor weather. Lincoln stayed at the Monongahela House and spoke from the balcony to a crowd of thousands gathered on the morning of February 14, 1861.
The names Peck, Vashon, and Delaney became synonymous with the Abolitionist movement in Pittsburgh. John Peck, was the owner of Peck’s Oyster House, which was a part of the Underground Railroad. John Peck and his son, David Jones Peck and daughter Mary Peck Bond were very active in the abolition and black suffrage movements. John Peck served his community in many ways, most notably as a Minister. He established the Wylie Street AME Church where many of his sermons had antislavery messages. John Peck was a regular attendee of Black State conventions that fought for racial equality and led the New York State convention in 1853. David Jones Peck was the first African-American to graduate from a medical college in the United States. David helped found the Juvenile Antislavery Society in Pittsburgh along with Greg Vashon. David attended and spoke at many antislavery events alongside Frederick Douglas and William Lloyd Garrison. Mary Peck Bond founded the first Home for Colored aged and Infirmed Women. Mary also assisted her father with care of escaped slaves who were hidden at their business and in the basement of their home.
The Vashon Family was mentioned earlier in this writing, known as the wealthiest African-American family in the city at this time. John Bathan Vashon was a veteran of the War of 1812. In 1829, John Vashon moved from Carlisle Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh where he became a well-known barber, land owner and the owner of Pittsburgh’s first public bathhouse. The bathhouse was a popular destination for white men and women during the day and a station on the Underground Railroad at night. John Vashon was the co-founder and heavily funded the Pittsburgh African Education Society which educated the children of freed slaves. John Vashon also heavily funded The Liberator an antislavery newspaper organized by William Lloyd Garrison.
John Vashon’s son and daughter-in-law were also heavily involved in the abolitionist movement. George Vashon was one of the founders of the Juvenile Antislavery Society and served as the secretary of the group until leaving for Oberlin College where he was the first African-American to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts. George Vashon became a legal clerk and apprentice to an Allegheny County Judge but was refused the ability to take the bar exam due to a Pennsylvania law that restricted the legal profession to whites only. George Vashon began to teach which eventually landed home at Avery College in Allegheny City where he met and married his wife Susan Paul Smith Vashon who was a teacher at Avery College. The couple continued to educate young African- Americans until after the Civil War. Both are well known for their educational contribution to African- Americans before and after the war and even had a school named for them in St. Louis, Missouri.
Martin Delaney is probably the most recognized name in the abolition movement in Pittsburgh. When Martin Delaney was 19 years old, he walked from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh seeking education. He was welcomed into the home of John Vashon and began his education at the African Education Society School. At the school, he met Reverend Lewis Woodson who would take Delaney under his wing and encouraged Delaney’s movement towards Black Nationalism. While attending school, Delaney established the Theban Literary Society, the group was established for young African-American men to study and debate topics. With his education, Delaney had the desire to become a doctor. Delaney began to learn and practice medicine under the training of Dr. Joseph Gazzam and Dr. Francis LeMoyne. After receiving a great deal of training from these two white abolitionist doctors, Delaney was accepted to Harvard Medical School, however, protests over his race by white students ended this opportunity quickly and Delaney returned to Pittsburgh.
Upon his return to Pittsburgh, Delaney began producing a weekly abolitionist newspaper called The Mystery. It was the first abolitionist paper to be produced west of the Allegheny Mountains. The newspaper failed to produce enough subscriptions to pay for the continued production and the newspaper ended operations in 1847. Shortly thereafter, Delaney began to write for The North Star an Abolitionist Newspaper produced by Frederick Douglas. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, Delaney began to spearhead a Black Nationalist Movement to seek out a new land for free former slaves to live and start a new life. This movement held a convention in Cleveland, Ohio in 1851 with 106 delegates from 11 states. In 1859, Delaney and others surveyed land from West Africa through the Niger Delta to find a suitable place to establish a new place for free blacks to emigrate. Once the Civil War broke out, Delaney had a renewed hope that all slaves would be freed. Delaney enlisted in the U.S. Army, he was immediately promoted to the rank of Major and assigned to recruitment of African-American soldiers. Delaney became the first African-American officer commissioned by President Abraham Lincoln. After the war was over, Delaney went to work for the Freedman’s Bureau, assuring adequate housing and working conditions for newly freed slaves.
Dyer, Ervin. 1999. “Arthursville Abolitionists ran Underground Railroad Through Pittsburgh.” Pittsburgh Post- Gazette, February 22. http://old.post-gazette.com/blackhistorymonth/19990222arthur.asp.
- Free At Last? Accessed February 2018. http://exhibit.library.pitt.edu/freeatlast/.