The Abolitionist Movement

“The radical men are the men of principle; they are men who feel what they contend for. They are not your slippery politicians who can jigger this way or that, or construe a thing any way to suit the present occasion.” —U.S. Senator Benjamin F. Wade, Ohio

Historically stereotyped as the work of White Northerners with a touch of sanctimony, the abolitionist movement involved both genders, all classes and professions, Blacks and Whites, and people from the North and the South, all with various ideas— and motives—for abolishing slavery.

The most well known are the immediate abolitionists who wanted a quick end to slavery throughout the nation. Although remembered through the work of Boston cleric William Lloyd Garrison, the “immediatists” had followers inside and outside of religious circles who opposed slavery on the basis of God-given equality, particularly the Quakers. Garrison’s newspaper, the Liberator, had a predominantly Black subscriber base and was funded by Philadelphian James Forten, a wealthy Black entrepreneur. In fact, Garrison and other White abolitionists were first brought into the cause by Black abolitionists during the Black National Convention of 1831. Journalists and social reformers also joined the immediate abolitionists’ ranks.

» Show / Hide More Information

The “immediatists” spread their message, mostly peacefully, through pamphlets, newsletters, editorials, and speeches, but violent reactions were common. Newspaper offices were burned, and abolitionists were attacked. Some abolitionists responded with a militant strategy that viewed violence as a necessary tactic against the entrenched forces of slavery. The most famous of the White militants was John Brown, a veteran of the violent Kansas-Missouri skirmishes of the 1850s, who launched a failed attack on the national armory in Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859 in an attempt to spark a slave revolt. He was hanged for it.

Other slavery opponents wanted to gradually dismantle slavery or prevent the expansion of slavery into the rapidly growing United States. The reasons ranged from a moral objection to the institution to feelings that the Southern aristocracy wielded power and influence in Washington that was out of proportion with their small number. At the same time, the economic fallout and concerns over how to deal with freed slaves raised questions about total abolition. By 1860, improved transportation resulted in the near- and far-western regions—including Western Pennsylvania—providing an increasing amount of the crops and raw materials Northern cities and factories needed. But the South still dominated such important and lucrative crops as tobacco, cotton, and sugar. Harvesting these crops relied on slave labor—ending slavery would possibly cripple these industries and hurt numerous economic interests.

In terms of the slaves themselves, people feared that their lives of dependence and a lack of education would make them a burden on society. By 1860, the South held nearly 4 million slaves—the logistics of assimilating them appeared insurmountable. Some views of the time even held that Blacks could not take care of themselves. In response to these fears, some people who supported abolition also advocated for expatriating freedmen to Africa.

Notable Abolitionists in Pittsburgh

Abolitionists based in the Pittsburgh region reflected the diversity of the national movement. Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner, Lewis Woodson, Martin R. Delany, John and David Peck, and the Vashon family were Black Pittsburgh leaders in the local and national abolitionist movement. Susan Vashon was among many Pittsburgh women, including the outspoken Jane Grey Swisshelm, who worked for the end of slavery. White abolitionists, including the Reverend Charles Avery, were active in educating African Americans and helping escaped slaves.

» Reverend Lewis Woodson
Reverend Lewis Woodson Image

The Reverend Lewis Woodson advocated separate societies for Blacks and Whites based on his principle that Blacks never could truly be independent in White society. Woodson envisioned Black agrarian communities that would support their own schools and churches. His views influenced those of such contemporaries as Pittsburgh abolitionist Martin R. Delany and helped shape Black separatism in the decades to come.

Woodson was born free in 1806 in Greenbrier County, Va. (now West Virginia). In 1820, his family moved to Chillicothe, Ohio, and Woodson joined Ohio’s abolitionist movement when he was 17. Woodson viewed education as key to Black selfreliance. He taught in Black schools in Chillicothe, Columbus and Gainesville, Ohio, and founded the African Education and Benevolent Society, which provided education to Black children denied access to public schools.

Woodson moved to Pittsburgh in 1831 to work as a barber, educator, and minister of Pittsburgh’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which he founded. In 1832, he partnered with prosperous Black businessman John B. Vashon to found the Pittsburgh African Education Society. A 19-yearold Delany traveled by foot to Pittsburgh from Chambersburg, Pa., to attend the school and eventually befriended Vashon and Woodson. The three worked closely together to advance Black rights. Woodson also joined Vashon and other Black and White businessmen as a member of Pittsburgh’s Vigilance Committee, an organization that spirited runaway slaves through the city.

For a five-year period beginning in 1837, Woodson honed and regularly expressed his Black separatist views in letters published in the abolitionist newspaper The Colored American. Woodson would remain an important figure in Black social and religious life in Pittsburgh until his death in 1878, but his letters represent his most distinct contribution to Black political thought.

Published under the pseudonym “Augustine,” Woodson called for total Black independence, political, economic, and social. He envisioned Blacks living in rural farming communities away from White society and he encouraged his fellow abolitionists to help prepare the massive framework that would be needed to create these zones once the slaves were free. His writings addressed White and Black abolitionists, but, at the same time, Woodson remained wary of White involvement in the Black community. For instance, Woodson supported Blacks who wished to expatriate to Africa or other nations, but he opposed the White societies that championed this solution for all Blacks. For Woodson, decisions on the fate of the Black community should rest exclusively with Black people.

He wrote, “So long as we admit of others taking the lead in our moral improvement and elevation, we never can expect it to be according to our wish and desire.”

» John C. Peck
Engraving of a slave in prayer

Black abolitionist John C. Peck was a staunch advocate of civil rights and quality education for Blacks. A member of the Western Pennsylvania Antislavery Society, Peck hosted many of the meetings in his home. He was a supporter of Martin R. Delany and served on the publishing committee for Delany’s abolitionist newspaper, The Mystery.

Born in 1802 in Hagerstown, Md., Peck was schooled in northern Virginia by a Presbyterian minister. As a young man, Peck moved to Carlisle, Pa., in 1821 and on to Pittsburgh around 1837. He served the community as barber, wigmaker, perfumer, and minister. He owned several businesses, including an oyster house and a clothing store. His success as a businessman enabled him to provide a life of comfort for his family and quality education for his children. Peck’s son David, in addition to becoming the first Black graduate of a U.S. medical school, would go on to emulate his father’s antislavery efforts at home and abroad. A daughter, Louisa, attended Oberlin College.

John Peck began his career as a preacher in 1834 in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) faith. He established the Wylie Street AME Church in Pittsburgh, where his sermons were described as “not brilliantly eloquent” but serviceable, “frequently carrying an antislavery message.”

Peck was among the foremost supporters of the Underground Railroad network in Allegheny County and served as president of the Philanthropic Society, which helped slaves escape. Acting at times as a mediator between fugitive slave and slaveholder, he, along with John and George Vashon, Lewis Woodson, and Delany, became expert at spiriting fugitives out of harm’s way. Politically, Peck was much engaged in the struggle to renew Black suffrage in Pennsylvania (lost in 1838) and in the pursuit of racial equality. He was a regular at Black state conventions, presiding over New York’s Black convention in Rochester in 1853.

Peck’s optimism, however, began to wane in the wake of the Dred Scott decision of 1857, and he leaned more toward the idea of emigration. The U.S. Supreme Court “ruled that people of African descent imported into the United States and their descendants, whether slave or free, could never be citizens of the United States. They could not sue a White, and could not be removed from a slaveholder without due process.” If Black people were to have a chance at freedom, he believed, perhaps they would fare better elsewhere. Peck considered emigrating to Canada West, but he remained in Pittsburgh until his death in 1875.

» David Jones Peck
Medical Engraving

David Jones Peck, born free around 1826, was the son of John Peck, one of the most prominent businessmen, ministers, and abolitionists in Pittsburgh. David Peck’s sister Louisa attended Oberlin College. Some time later, his sister Mary Peck Bond founded the first Home for Colored Aged and Infirmed Women in Pittsburgh. David Peck was raised in the abolitionist tradition of his father, which influenced his own antislavery ideology. Peck, like his childhood friend, George Vashon, became an active member of the Juvenile Anti- Slavery Society and served as its president. The Juvenile Anti-Slavery Society was the first such organization formed west of the Alleghenies.

From 1844 to about 1846, Peck studied medicine under Dr. Joseph P. Gazzam, a White antislavery physician. Peck’s friend, Martin R. Delany, also interned under Dr. Gazzam. Peck then entered Rush Medical College in the fall of 1846 and became the first African American to graduate from an American medical college in 1847. After graduation, Peck toured the state of Ohio, promoting antislavery issues with abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass.

Peck practiced medicine in Philadelphia for approximately two years, until around 1851. Delany persuaded him to join him in his emigration expedition, searching out a suitable place for free Blacks to settle in Central America. While there, Peck was named port physician of San Juan Del Norte (later called Greytown), Nicaragua, on the Mosquito Coast. Peck organized the local residents, among whom were Black expatriates. Peck remained there until at least 1855. He returned to Pennsylvania and, after the Civil War, served as vice president of the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League. Peck’s whereabouts thereafter are unknown.

In January 1984, Rush Medical College erected a memorial in his honor.

» John Bathan Vashon
Military vessels on the ocean during the War of 1812

John Bathan Vashon, one of the most important abolitionists to emerge during the nation’s antebellum era, was born free in Norfolk, Va., in 1792. He was the mulatto son of George Vashon, a White slaveholder’s son, and a family slave named Fanny.

John Vashon was one of the many Black soldiers to fight in the War of 1812. At the age of 20, he became a seaman aboard the warship U.S.S. Revenge. During battle with the British off the coast of Brazil, Vashon was captured and held prisoner for two years. His freedom was secured in exchange for a British soldier. Vashon returned to Virginia, eventually settling in Leesburg, where he met and married Anne Smith. In 1822, Vashon moved his wife and daughter, Mary Frances, to Carlisle, Pa., where he opened a successful public saloon and a livery stable. It was there where Vashon’s only son, George, was born. In 1829, the Vashon family relocated to Pittsburgh.

A true trailblazer, Vashon was a successful barber, landowner, and proprietor of Pittsburgh’s first bathhouse, on Third Street between Market and Ferry Streets. Frequented by White men and women during the day, at night it was a station for slaves traveling the Underground Railroad. A stellar community leader, Vashon was trustee of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and cofounder in 1832 of the Pittsburgh African Education Society. In 1833, Vashon organized and hosted the first meeting of the Pittsburgh Anti Slavery Society in his home. In 1841, Vashon took an active part in the Proceedings of the State Convention of the Colored Freemen of Pennsylvania held in Pittsburgh August 23–25. A strong supporter of the early abolitionist journals, Vashon was a dedicated financial supporter and agent for William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator. One of the wealthiest Black men in Pittsburgh and endowed with a philanthropic nature, Vashon in 1850 consorted with other colleagues and purchased the freedom of one of his barber apprentices, George White, who was threatened with recapture by individuals who entered Vashon’s shop and recognized the youth. Vashon, afterward, took the young man into his home.

Vashon raised both his son, George, and his daughter, Mary Frances, in the abolitionist tradition. He spared no expense on their education, sending George to Oberlin College and Mary Frances to the Female Academy of Miss Sarah M. Douglass in Philadelphia. Mary Frances placed ads in Martin Delany’s The Mystery newspaper in 1846 advertising lessons in the art of raised embroidery and also wrote for antislavery newspapers under the pseudonym of Fanny Homewood, using the first name of her father’s mother. John Vashon’s brother, Halson, also resided in Pittsburgh, and joined his brother in the antislavery crusade. On December 29, 1853, John Vashon, en route as a delegate to the National Convention of Veterans of the War of 1812, collapsed and died in a Pittsburgh train station of heart failure. An editorial reported: “[H]e fell with his harness on, and died in the last act of service to his brethren, and in obedience to the summons of his country….”

» George Boyer Vashon
George Boyer Vashon Image

Born in Carlisle, Pa., in 1824, George Boyer Vashon was the only son and second child born to free parents John, a mulatto, and Anne Vashon. George’s father, John Bathan Vashon, was a wellrespected leader in Pittsburgh’s Black community, a businessman, and an abolitionist. Following his father’s example, George served as the secretary of the Pittsburgh Juvenile Anti-Slavery Society. George and childhood friend David Peck, son of Pittsburgh abolitionist John Peck, cofounded the organization in 1838.

In 1840, at age 16, George enrolled in Oberlin College. In 1844, he became the first Black to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree from Oberlin College and was valedictorian. He also received a master’s degree there. He returned to Pittsburgh where he worked along with Martin R. Delany on The Mystery, and was also apprenticed for law study for two years to Judge Walter Forward who later became U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. Unfortunately, because of his race, Vashon was denied on two occasions the opportunity to sit for the Pennsylvania bar examination. In 1838, Pennsylvania’s constitution restricted the franchise to White men only and also declared, “Black men had no political existence and could not be admitted to law practice in the state.” Vashon passed the New York bar and became the state of New York’s first Black licensed attorney. He then accepted a position in Haiti at the College Faustin, where he taught for two years before returning to the United States in 1850 and opening a law practice in Syracuse, N.Y. While in Syracuse, he authored his epic poem, Vincent Ogé, commemorating the Haitian revolution.

Vashon maintained that race was always a factor in the downward spiral of his professional career in the United States. In 1853, he began a professorship at New York Central College in McGrawville, N.Y., which ended in 1857. Vashon believed that the college wanted to be rid of Black teachers “in order that it [New York Central College] may become an object of popular favor.” He returned to Pittsburgh, where he became the principal of colored public schools. In Pittsburgh, he met Susan Paul Smith, an assistant teacher from Boston. In 1863, he became president of Avery College, and he and Smith married in 1864. Their family included seven children, four of whom survived through adulthood. Still intent on practicing law, Vashon appealed to the Allegheny County bar. His defense was that he had passed the bar examination in New York, but his efforts were futile and his appeal was denied. In 1867, Vashon relocated to Washington, D.C., where he was admitted to practice law as an attorney and became counselor to the Supreme Court of the United States.

At the end of the Civil War, Vashon took a position as solicitor for the Freedmen’s Bureau, where he was permitted to argue cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1867, he became the first Black professor at Howard University. In 1873, he accepted a position as first class clerk in the Office of the Second Auditor of the Treasury. Later that year, he accepted a professorship of ancient and modern languages at Alcorn University in Rodney, Miss.

Vashon died of yellow fever in the fall of 1878. He is buried in an unmarked grave on Alcorn University’s campus. His wife, Susan, moved to St. Louis, Mo., with their four children. Vashon High School, built in 1927 in St. Louis, was named in honor of both George Vashon and his son John “for their years of dedicated service as educators.”

» Susan Paul Smith Vashon
Susan Paul Smith Vashon Image

Susan Paul Smith was born in Boston, Mass., on September 19, 1838, to Anne and Elijah. Smith’s father, an established composer and cornetist, was summoned to play at Windsor Castle for Queen Victoria. Her mother, Anne Paul Smith, was the daughter of the Reverend Thomas Paul, who founded and pastored the Joy Street Church in Boston where the American Anti Slavery Society was organized.

Smith’s mother died when she was young and her maternal grandmother raised her. At age 16, Smith graduated, the only Black person, and valedictorian of her class, from the elite Miss O’Mears’ Seminary in Somerville, Mass. Upon the death of her grandmother, Smith moved to Pittsburgh to live with her father. While there, she was appointed a teacher at Avery College. During her employment, she met George Boyer Vashon, principal of the school and son of famed abolitionist John Bathan Vashon. They married on February 17, 1857. While in Pittsburgh in 1864–65, Susan Vashon organized “relief bazaars” and raised thousands of dollars to provide housing and rehabilitation for wounded Negro soldiers.

The Vashons moved to Washington, D.C., in 1867. Susan’s career as an educator blossomed there when she began teaching in Black schools in 1872 and became principal of Thaddeus Stevens School around 1880. In 1874, George Vashon resumed his career as a college instructor. He took a position at Alcorn University in Rodney, Miss., and died four years later in 1878.

In 1882, Susan Vashon moved with her four children to St. Louis, Mo., where she lived with her son, John B. Vashon, an educator. She became well acclimated to her new surroundings. A firm believer in community service, she volunteered at the All Saints Episcopal Church, was a member of a book club, and was a member of the Mother’s Club, which “guided young women.” Very much involved in the women’s club movement, Susan Vashon was instrumental in organizing the Missouri Association of Colored Women’s Clubs in 1900. It was Susan Vashon who persuaded the National Association of Colored Women to bring its convention to St. Louis in 1904 during the World’s Fair.

In recognition of the many contributions of the Vashon family in the area of education, Vashon High School in St. Louis, Mo., was named in their honor. Susan Vashon died in St. Louis on November 27, 1912.

» Jane Grey Swisshelm
Jane Grey Swisshelm Image

Women were very much a part of the nation’s antislavery movement. None was more outspoken than Pittsburgh’s Jane Grey Swisshelm. Born Jane Grey Cannon in Pittsburgh on December 6, 1815, she was the daughter of Thomas Cannon, a merchant and real estate speculator, and Mary Scott. At the age of 14, Swisshelm became a teacher at Edgeworth, a boarding school for girls. She married at about age 21 and moved with her husband to Louisville, Ky. Kentucky was memorable for Swisshelm; it was there that she first encountered the institution of slavery.

Swisshelm was strong willed, and marriage proved difficult. In 1839 she joined her ailing mother in Philadelphia where she cared for her until the time of her death. Eventually, Swisshelm rejoined her husband on their farm, east of Pittsburgh in a town known today as Swissvale. While in Pittsburgh, Swisshelm wrote antislavery articles for abolitionist newspapers in addition to stories and poetry for submission to other papers. When the antislavery newspaper went out of business in Pittsburgh, Swisshelm started her own, calling it the Saturday Visitor, which reached a national circulation of 6,000.

Swisshelm’s editorials and columns in her newspaper and eventually in the New York Tribune, where she was hired by Horace Greeley to be the first woman columnist and the first woman reporter to be seated in the Senate gallery, issued a drumbeat for the end of slavery and contributed to the growing antislavery sentiment in the nation.

Swisshelm died in 1884 at her Swissvale home and is buried in Allegheny Cemetery. Swisshelm Park, located next to Swissvale, is named in her honor.

» Reverend Charles Avery
Reverend Charles Avery Image

Reverend Charles Avery was born in Westchester County, N.Y., on December 10, 1784 and moved to Pittsburgh in 1812. A successful entrepreneur, Avery owned a cotton mill and pharmaceutical businesses, which flourished, making him one of the wealthiest men in Western Pennsylvania. A devout Methodist, he also was a minister and a staunch abolitionist, abhorring the institution of slavery.

Avery was very much involved in the abolitionist movement and believed that the advancement of the African American was dependent on education. To that end, he founded the Avery Trade School for Colored Youth in March 1849 in Allegheny City at the corner of Nash and Avery streets. The school later became known as Avery College and was one of the earliest vocational schools for Black people in the United States. The school building, made of brick, was equipped with a library initially furnished with 700 volumes of varied literature, the equipment necessary to instruct a variety of natural sciences, and an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church on the third level for worship. Tuition was nominal, set at only $2 per term. Two of the nation’s most prominent abolitionists served as president of the college during its existence, George Vashon and Henry Highland Garnet.

A strong supporter of the Underground Railroad movement in Allegheny County, Avery employed the Avery Mission Church as one of the stops. A tunnel in the basement led to a canal and then on to the Allegheny River. Avery also played an important part in the Amistad trial, providing financial support for legal representation for the Africans when their trial went before the U.S. Supreme Court.

At the time of his death in 1858, Avery left $300,000 to support the education and Christianization of Black people. The funds were divided into two equal parts: one half, $150,000, provided for Black people in Africa and was to be administered through the American Missionary Society; the other half was devoted to colleges that educated Black people in the United States. Among them were Oberlin, Lincoln, and Wilberforce.

An endowment, the Avery Fund, in the amount of $25,000 “provided for 12 scholarships for young colored men in the University of Pittsburg,” as stated in The Negro Year Book. “In accordance with the agreement between the executors of the Avery Estate and the trustees of the University, this fund is to provide instruction for males of the colored people in the United States of America or the British Providence of Canada. The number is not to exceed 12 at any one time or term, nor is an individual to hold a scholarship for a period longer than 4 years. Avery scholarships are granted to undergraduate students in the college of arts, and the schools of engineering, mine economics, and education.” — The Negro Year Book: An American Encyclopedia of the Negro by Tuskegee Institute, 1916

Avery is interred at Allegheny Cemetery, where a life-size statue greets the visitor, a reminder of the benevolent acts of a man committed to racial equality.

» Benjamin Tucker Tanner
Benjamin Tucker Tanner Image

Benjamin Tucker Tanner was born in Pittsburgh on Christmas Day in 1835, the son of Isabel and Hugh S. Tanner. At age 9, Tanner contributed to the family income by delivering newspapers. As a young man, he attended Avery College (1852–57) and Western Theological Seminary (1857–60) in what was then Pittsburgh’s North Side. Tanner worked as a barber to pay for his studies.

In 1858, he married Sarah Miller, a runaway slave born in Winchester, Va., to a White slaveholder. Sarah’s mother sent her to the North on the Underground Railroad, where she was raised in Pittsburgh. Sarah bore seven children, one of whom was the renowned painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, born in Pittsburgh on June 21, 1859. Henry got his middle name from Osawatomie, the site of John Brown’s antislavery raid in Kansas.

Benjamin Tanner supported the efforts and ideology of the Rev. Charles Avery and other like-minded citizens of Pittsburgh in their antislavery efforts.

Tanner was licensed to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in 1858. Later, he officiated at the 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., and around 1862, he organized a school for freedmen in the United States navy yard. It was the first freedmen’s school established in the nation. Tanner later returned to the AME Church, attending the Baltimore Conference in 1862, and eventually taking charge of the freedmen’s schools in Frederick County, Md. In 1868, he became pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia. Tanner graduated from Wilberforce University in Ohio, from which he received his Doctor of Divinity degree in 1878.

Tanner edited The Christian Recorder, a newspaper published by the AME Church, from 1868 to 1884. He later founded the AME Church Review, a journal devoted to issues of importance to the African American. The AME Church consecrated Tanner a bishop in 1888, and he retired from the ministry in 1908. He also was a writer, the author of An Apology for African Methodism, published in 1867. Tanner sat for a portrait for his son in 1897. The painting, titled Bishop, is now part of the African American collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Tanner died in 1923.

» Reverend Robert Bruce
Reverend Robert Bruce Image

The Reverend Robert Bruce, a young graduate of the University of Edinburgh, was “missioned” to America by his church. In 1801, he found the young nation fascinating, traveling through NewYork, Philadelphia, and the Carolinas before heading west to become pastor of the First United Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh.

But Bruce’s bent was toward education. When a group of city leaders founded the Western University of Pennsylvania, they chose Bruce as its principal, equivalent to today’s rank of chancellor. Bruce himself taught “natural philosophy, chemistry, mathematics, etcetera” at the school, which opened in 1819 with a faculty of five men.

Western University incorporated an earlier school, the Pittsburgh Academy, founded in 1787, as its preparatory program. The academy was built on land granted by the Penn family, settled by Sheriff Samuel Ewalt, a man who registered two slaves among his holdings. Both institutions, including a legal department and a medical college, were forerunners of the University of Pittsburgh.

Western University’s charter was liberal, stating “no distinction should be made in the student body as to creed or color, with persons of every religious denomination welcome.” In 1829, Bruce had an opportunity to test the charter when the first Black student enrolled.

Before admitting the young Black man, Bruce polled the already enrolled students, and many of them voiced their opposition to having a Black classmate. Not sharing their prejudice, Bruce provided the Black youth with private lessons in the classics and a seat in the hallway, from which the Black student could hear Bruce’s lectures. An account of the incident published in an 1883 issue of the Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine reported the following conclusion: “It should be said, to the credit of all concerned, that before the session closed, such was the good conduct of the young [Black] man, the prejudice against him had nearly disappeared.”

Bruce, along with other leaders of Western University, joined the Pittsburgh Colonization Society, the mission of which was to advocate for the resettling of free Blacks in Africa. Although most members of the society were proslavery, Bruce was known to be one of the leading abolitionists in the region.

» Martin Robison Delany
Martin Robison Delany Image

Martin R. Delany, born free in Charleston, Va., on May 6, 1812, was the second son of Pati, a free seamstress, and Samuel, a plantation slave. Pati believed in education, even though it was illegal to educate slaves. After being caught teaching her children, Pati and her family fled to Chambersburg, Pa.

At 19, Martin sought out new opportunities. He walked 150 miles to Pittsburgh in 1831 to attend the African Educational Society School under the tutelage of the Reverend Lewis Woodson. Delany became a protégé of Woodson, who fostered his Black nationalist sentiment. Wealthy abolitionist John Vashon opened his home to Delany upon his arrival in the city. Delany subsequently established the Theban Literary Society, a club for young Black men who desired to study and debate.

Founding the Philanthropic Society, Delany joined with Woodson, Vashon, John Peck, and others to help runaway slaves to freedom. These men, along with the Rev. Charles Avery, were among the most notable antislavery agents in Allegheny County. Delany and his colleagues also rallied to restore Black suffrage in Pennsylvania, a right denied in 1838.

In 1843, Delany married Catherine Richards of Pittsburgh, a woman of Black and Irish ancestry and fathered seven children. His ambition was to become a doctor. He practiced medicine under the guidance of Drs. Joseph P. Gazzam and Francis J. LeMoyne. In 1850, he enrolled in Harvard’s medical school, but student protests over his race drove him from the school. Delany eventually returned to Pittsburgh, where he continued to practice medicine.

While in Pittsburgh, Delany founded The Mystery, a weekly abolitionist newspaper that had the distinction of being the first Black newspaper published west of the Alleghenies. It covered the social, political, and economic concerns of Black Americans.

Delany secured agents in nine states, many of whom were fellow abolitionists, to solicit subscriptions. Despite his valiant efforts, inadequate subscriptions resulted in the paper folding in 1847. That same year, Delany joined Frederick Douglass as coeditor of the abolitionist newspaper, The North Star.

Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 and Delany issued a call to action in August 1853. He wanted to establish a successful Black nation separate from the United States. A year later, the first National Emigration Convention met in Cleveland, Ohio, with 106 delegates from 11 states. By 1856, Delany and his family had moved to Canada, but he remained committed to promoting abolition and emigration, traveling frequently between Canada and the United States.

Delany was against White-led colonization attempts to send Blacks to Africa but highly favored Black-organized emigration. In 1859, Delany led an expedition party to West Africa through the Niger Delta to find a suitable location for Black emigration.

The American Civil War reawakened Delany’s hope for America’s 4 million Blacks in bondage. He joined the army and was promoted to major. He served as a recruiter of Black soldiers and became the first Black officer commissioned by President Abraham Lincoln. At war’s end, Delany worked with the Freedman’s Bureau to provide adequate living and working conditions for newly freed Blacks. Delany authored several works, including The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, and the novel Blake: or, The Huts of America, one of the first novels written by an African American. Delany died in Wilberforce, Ohio, in 1885.

» Catherine A. Delany
Catherine A. Delany Image

Catherine A. Richards, the daughter of Charles Richards, an African American, and Felicia Fitzgerald, a native of Cork, Ireland, was born in 1822 in Pittsburgh. Prior to the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, intermarriage between races had been forbidden in Pennsylvania, but with the passing of the act, the law was nullified.

Catherine was part of an elite Black family, one of the oldest and wealthiest in Pittsburgh. Her father was the son of Lucy and Benjamin Richards, known to many as “Daddy Ben,” a man of substantial wealth and property and a well-established butcher in the colonial era. An early settler, Benjamin had crossed the Alleghenies when Pittsburgh was just a village. He made substantial profits as a butcher and supplier of meat to the military. In 1810, the census for Allegheny County reported Benjamin as head of a free household of six. According to Hallie Q. Brown, in her book Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction, Benjamin “erected and owned the first brick building in Pittsburgh where court sessions were held for many years.” His estimated worth was a quarter of a million dollars. Unfortunately, lawyers working on behalf of envious White businessmen disputed Benjamin’s legal possession of deeds. As a result, the bulk of Benjamin’s fortune did not go to his heirs. His son, Charles, owned a leading tavern and provided a comfortable and respectable life for his family but never acquired substantial wealth.

On March 15, 1843, at the age of 21, Catherine was married to aspiring physician Martin R. Delany at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church on Front Street. During this same year, Delany established The Mystery newspaper. Catherine Delany helped her husband find agents to sell subscriptions in various cities. She, along with other Black women in the community “held a soiree for the benefit of the newspaper.” This event was held yearly on August 1 (the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies) in Arthur’s Grove, located just outside the city. Although for many the Fourth of July was a holiday to commemorate the birth of the United States, many Black and White abolitionists didn’t observe it given that many Americans were still in bondage. They celebrated on August 1 instead.

During the great fire of 1845 that destroyed much of Pittsburgh, Catherine Delany helped feed homeless families who were given shelter in the courthouse and other places. The AME Church on Front Street was destroyed, as was John Vashon’s barbershop and home. The Delanys’ former home had been destroyed by fire as well.

In 1856, Catherine Delany moved with her husband and family to Chatham, Ontario, which housed a colony of American Blacks near Detroit. By 1864, the Delanys resettled in Wilberforce, Ohio, where they educated their children. It was here that Catherine Delany died in 1894.

Bethel AME Church—Oldest Black Congregation in Pittsburgh

Bethel Church Image

The United States, University of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, and the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church have in common their 1787 beginnings.

Bethel began when Black members of Philadelphia’s St. George’s Methodist Church walked out in protest of its practice of racial segregation within the church. Led by Richard Allen, a lay minister and former slave in two states, and the Reverend Absalom Jones, they established the Free African Society in 1787, and Allen was ordained and named pastor of its Bethel AME Church upon its establishment in 1794.

In 1808, an AME congregation was established in Pittsburgh, the first AME church west of the Allegheny Mountains. It was on Front Street, just steps from the Pittsburgh Academy, today the University of Pittsburgh. Ultimately, the congregation became Pittsburgh’s Bethel AME Church. Abolitionist Lewis Woodson served as one of its pastors. After several moves, the church relocated to the Hill District in 1906.

The Colonization Movement

The colonization movement, which had as its goal the voluntary settlement of free Blacks outside the United States, peaked in the 1820s and 1830s. The movement’s leading organization, the American Colonization Society (ACS), argued that free Blacks had no future in this country, where they had become “undesirable and degraded elements.” Toward that end, the ACS in 1821, with the assistance of the U.S. government, established the colony of Liberia in West Africa to receive Blacks already free or to be freed by their slaveholders.

Pittsburghers established a chapter of ACS in 1826. As was true nationally, the chapter’s membership was entirely White and mainly proslavery, but included a few who were sympathetic to the plight of Blacks. Two of Pittsburgh’s leading abolitionists and friends of Black folks, Dr. Julius LeMoyne and Reverend Charles Avery, for example, were members, as was Reverend Robert Bruce, first chancellor of the Western University of Pennsylvania, the forerunner of the University of Pittsburgh.

» Show / Hide More Information

According to one historian, Martin R. Delany, one of Pittsburgh’s leading Black abolitionists, recognized “some honest-hearted men, who … favor that [colonization] scheme,” singling out LeMoyne and Avery as examples of a “host” of other “well wishers of the colored people, who may favor colonization.” Delany knew whereof he spoke, for LeMoyne was a staunch abolitionist who trained Delany in medicine and sponsored his entry into medical school, and Avery established Avery Institute for the education of Blacks. Bruce undoubtedly would have been considered by Delany as among that “host of others,” for Bruce was one of the city’s first abolitionists.

By the 1830s, ACS dropped its pretense of trying to help free Blacks, and increasingly attacked the antislavery movement. Whites sympathetic toward the plight of Blacks came to understand the true motives of the ACS, and in response many dropped their membership.

The colonization movement in Pittsburgh never was very strong. The local ACS chapter went dormant shortly after its founding in 1826, and even after a revival in 1832, its level of activity remained low. By the 1840s it was eclipsed by its archenemy, the antislavery movement.

Pittsburgh’s ACS failed largely because free Blacks rejected its call to leave America; by the time of the Civil War, only about 10,000 Blacks had moved to Liberia—none, so far as we know, from Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh free Blacks, like their counterparts elsewhere, were insulted by statements that they were “degraded elements,” and they were outraged by assumptions that they were less than fully American. They were convinced, moreover, that ACS was simply interested in shoring up slavery by preventing enslaved Blacks from seeing living embodiments of Black freedom. In 1835, Pittsburgh Blacks denounced ACS in a resolution both stinging and sarcastic:

[W]e, the colored people of Pittsburgh and Citizens of the United States, view the country in which we live as our only true and proper home. We are just as much natives here as the members of the Colonization Society—Here we were born—here bred— here is all that binds man to earth and makes life valuable. And we do consider every colored man who allows himself to be colonized in Africa, or elsewhere, a traitor to our cause. … We now inform the Colonization Society, that should our reason forsake us, then we may desire to remove. We will apprise them of this change in due season.

Pittsburgh Blacks threw their energies into the antislavery cause. In 1833 John Vashon, a prominent local Black businessman and civic leader, established the city’s first antislavery society.

Blacks hated colonization partly because they hated ACS and regarded its colony of Liberia as a puppet government. But in 1847, when Liberia gained its independence, a number of Black nationalists, such as Henry Highland Garnet and Alexander Crummel, supported Black colonization there.

The man who most forcefully linked colonization with Black nationalism was Pittsburgh’s Delany. Early on, Delany, like most Northern Black leaders, believed in the ability of White Americans to shed their prejudices. He joined Frederick Douglass in publishing the North Star newspaper, which urged Blacks to remain in America and fight for their own rights and for the emancipation of their enslaved brethren. By the 1850s, however, passage of the Fugitive Slave Act caused Delany such despair that he lost hope in America and explored places for Blacks to settle abroad. Delany visited Nigeria in 1859 and negotiated with Yoruba chiefs for land, but his colonization plans ended with the outbreak of the Civil War, when he and other Black leaders saw the opportunity to stay and fight to end slavery.

Although Delany never established a colony, his book, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, with its clarion call, “We are a nation within a nation,” made him the clearest intellectual leader of Black nationalism and migration/colonization until the time of Marcus Garvey in the 20th century.