Celebrate African American History at the History Center

The Heinz History Center’s African American Program is dedicated to the preservation, dissemination, and interpretation of the life, history, and culture of Africans and African Americans in Western Pennsylvania.

Here are just 10 of the many artifacts from the African American collection.

Anti-slavery pitcher, made by E. Ridgeway & Abington, Hanley, England, c. 1853. Gift of Julia A. Grimstad.

Anti-slavery pitcher, made by E. Ridgeway & Abington, Hanley, England, c. 1853. Gift of Julia A. Grimstad.

Likely made for the American market and specifically designed for the anti-slavery movement, this relief-molded stoneware pitcher depicts two scenes from the American enslavement of Africans. One side of the pitcher features a slave auction while the opposite side features an incident from slave lore probably from the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” where Eliza flees across the partially frozen Ohio River with Harry. Items such as this pitcher generated funds for anti-slavery activities in the U.S. and England. To see this pitcher, visit the From Slavery to Freedom exhibit.

The American Anti-Slavery Society, commissioned the firm of Gibbs Gardner & Company of New Jersey to strike varieties of a kneeling female piece, with the motto “Am I Not A Woman and Sister.” The token features a kneeling African-American woman in chains, and on the reverse, a laurel wreath inscribed with “Liberty,” “1838,” and “United States of America.” The imagery and text of this token are related to anti-slavery seals used in Britain in 1795 and 1828 and the U.S. from 1832. Carried by abolitionists the coin served as a symbol of their faith in the movement. You can see this token in the From Slavery to Freedom exhibit.

“Am I Not a Woman & a Sister,” anti-slavery token, 1838.

“Am I Not a Women & a Sister,” anti-slavery token, 1838.

Charles Avery, Humanitarian, artist unknown, oil on canvas, 1840s. Gift of Wilbur C. Douglas.

Charles Avery, Humanitarian, artist unknown, oil on canvas, 1840s. Gift of Wilbur C. Douglas.

Charles Avery moved to Pittsburgh in 1812 and worked as a merchant, apothecary, mine owner, and textile mill owner. His travels through the south to inspect the plantations that supplied his Pittsburgh mills with cotton inspired him to consider the plight of the enslaved. In the late 1820s he became a member of the American Colonization Society; in the 1830s he joined the Western Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, and in the 1840s began to help establish churches and schools for African Americans. In 1849 he established the Allegheny Institute and Mission Church in Allegheny City. The three-story brick building housed a school on the top floor and the basement served as a safe house for freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad. Avery participated in public meetings advocating for abolition. Upon his death, his wealthy estate, originally built on commerce with cotton plantations, provided for scholarships for African Americans at Oberlin College, the Avery Institute in Charleston, South Carolina, and African Methodist churches. You can see this portrait of Charles Avery in the From Slavery to Freedom exhibit.

More than 300,000 African Americans served in the U.S. armed forces during World War I, and over 1,400 were officers. Donald Jefferson became a Second Lieutenant in the newly formed 351st Field Artillery Regiment of the U.S. Army during World War I. When Pittsburgh welcomed the 351st home, Jefferson, wearing his uniform, led the parade. After the war, he completed his studies at the University of Pittsburgh, School of Pharmacy and became a pharmacist in East Liberty from 1923 to 1967. Jefferson’s business, the Lincoln Drug Company, became the first African American owned store in East Liberty. This uniform is currently on display in the textile gallery as part of the Special Collections Gallery.

U.S. Army uniform and boots, 1917. Gift of Ida Mae Jefferson.

U.S. Army uniform and boots, 1917. Gift of Ida Mae Jefferson

Airplane propeller from a Piper Cub, c. 1945. Gift of Regis Bobonis.

Airplane propeller from a Piper Cub, c. 1945. Gift of Regis Bobonis.

The simple, lightweight Piper Cub worked overtime during World War II, training pilots with the Civilian Pilot Training Program, or CPT. Every would-be military pilot started by learning the basics in the CPT. Tuskegee Airmen then graduated to more difficult planes, such as the Boeing-Stearman PT-17, the Fairchild PT-19, or the North American T-6 Texan.

Hill District born John Clark enlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps in 1964. He served as an MP rising to the rank of sergeant. In 1966 he was sent to Vietnam and saw combat at Hill 22. He served a thirteen-month tour. Wounded while serving as point man in his platoon during battle and recon patrol, Clark received two Purple Hearts. His jacket can currently be seen in the Special Collections textile gallery.

U.S. Marine Corps dress jacket, 1960s. Purple Heart awarded to John Clark for his service in Vietnam, 1966. Gift of John Clark.

U.S. Marine Purple Heart awarded to John Clark for his service in Vietnam, 1966. U.S. Marine Corps dress jacket, 1960s. Gift of John Clark.

U.S. Olympic Women’s basketball jersey, 2004. Gift of Robert Gallagher.

U.S. Olympic Women’s basketball jersey, 2004. Gift of Robert Gallagher.

McKeesport native Swintayla “Swin” Cash has achieved at every level in her sport. She played for McKeesport Area High School earning high school All-America first team honors and being named the Gatorade Pennsylvania Player of the year. Cash then continued her winning ways at UConn. Named first team All-American by Kodak/WBCA and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association in 2002, she contributed to two NCAA titles won by the Huskies. Selected number two overall in the 2002 WNBA draft by the Detroit Shock, Cash helped lead the Shock to the WNBA Championship in 2003, then added an Olympic gold medal as a member of the 2004 U.S. women’s basketball team. A three-time WNBA champion, Cash added another gold medal in 2012. She retired from play after the 2016 season. Cash’s jersey from 2004 can be found in the Special Collections textile gallery, her 2012 jersey is at the entrance to the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.

Harris, (1908-1998), began as a freelance photographer with the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper in 1936 and joined the staff in 1941. He became known as “one shot” after taking a picture of Pittsburgh Mayor David L. Lawrence with one flash of his camera. Harris retired from the New Pittsburgh Courier in 1975. Used for both indoor and outdoor photography Harris may have used this camera extensively as he was a prolific photographer who worked both on the street and in the studio. The camera is currently on display in #Pixburgh: A Photographic Experience.

Conley Safety Camera used by Charles “Teenie” Harris, 1920s. Gift of the family of Charles “Teenie” Harris.

Conley Safety Camera used by Charles “Teenie” Harris, 1920s. Gift of the family of Charles “Teenie” Harris.

Judicial robe, 1972. Gift of Gwendolyn G. Simmons.

Judicial robe, 1972. Gift of Gwendolyn G. Simmons.

In 1973, Judge Paul A. Simmons became the first African American federal judge in Western Pennsylvania. Born in Monongahela, Pa., he attended the University of Pittsburgh and received his law degree from Harvard University. After teaching law he returned to private practice in his hometown. A judge on the Washington County Court of Common Pleas from 1973-78, Simmons was nominated by President Jimmy Carter for the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. He served for 12 years. You can view Judge Simmons’ robes in the textile gallery as part of the Special Collections Gallery.

This guitar belonged to jazz and pop musician George Benson, an eight-time Grammy Award winner known as one of the best jazz guitarists of his time. Born in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Benson graduated in 1958 from Schenley High School. He sang in local nightclubs when he was just 8 years old and then picked up the guitar. After high school, he played professionally in Jack McDuff’s band. Made exclusively for George Benson and used during the 1980s, this Ibanez guitar model GB10 bears his signature and initials on the neck-head. The guitar can be seen in the Crawford Grill section of the Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation exhibit.

George Benson guitar, 1980s. Gift of George Benson.

George Benson guitar, 1980s. Gift of George Benson.

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