Pittsburgh’s Senator John Heinz History Center has a long-term exhibit on the fourth floor titled “From Slavery to Freedom.”
Installed in 2012, the multi-media exhibit sponsored in a minimum 10-year commitment by BNY Mellon focuses on the history of African-Americans from origins in Africa to their arrival in North America on slave ships to today, with a special emphasis on Pittsburgh.
The exhibit includes textiles and artifacts from Africa, as well as actual artifacts, re-creations, pictorial, video and immersive descriptions of the history of American blacks throughout history, including “original hardware of slavery,” manumission, indenture and freedom papers discovered by the Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds Office and interactive displays featuring the abolitionist movement and Underground Railroad.
“A section on the Civil War briefly talks about the hundreds of African-American men who fought in the Civil War, and highlights Congressional Medal of Honor Winner Alexander Kelly from Pittsburgh,” says Samuel W. Black, the History Center’s Director of African-American Programs.
“A section on the Reconstruction,” Black says of the period following the Civil War, “focuses on the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments and how those impacted not just black America, but blacks in Greater Pittsburgh.”
A section focusing on the Great Migration and the Civil Rights movement “from the early 20th Century to the early 21st Century,” Black says, “features a rendition of the monument at Pittsburgh’s Freedom Corner [at Centre and Crawford in the Hill District] which features all the names of the Civil Rights activists in Pittsburgh.”
Accompanying the exhibit at the Strip District museum, the History Center also sponsors a series of films focusing on elements of Black History at the Homewood Branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Previous years have featured dramatic recreations or films of a biographical nature, including documentary presentations on W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Jack Johnson in 2015, and Ida B. Wells in 2014. Black says the Wells documentary was particularly popular, especially because it is one of few which focus on women.
“We have been making our way through history,” Black says, noting that he has attempted to group films chronologically as the annual series continues.
This year, the series kicks off on Wednesday, February 10 with the 5:30 showing of The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords. The film focuses on the history of the black press, including the stories of journalists who risked their lives to bring the news to African-Americans. As part of this examination, Black hopes to bring a moderator from the New Pittsburgh Courier to speak at the event, particularly as a nod to the significance of the Courier as a “paper of record” for African-Americans across the country.
On April 27, the series continues with the biographical Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun, exploring the life of the first black woman to earn popular recognition for her literary achievements. In addition to interviews with scholars, the film includes “rare footage of the rural South, some of it shot by Hurston herself.” Black hopes to have a University of Pittsburgh-based Hurston scholar moderate this presentation.
On August 17, Jazz: The American Art Form J will be presented. An episode of New York City’s ABC-TV show Like It Is, hosted by the late Gil Noble, the show discusses major influences on mid-20th Century jazz, many from Pittsburgh including Billy Eckstine, Roy Eldridge, Art Blakey, Erroll Garner and Kenny Clarke.
Black says he had seen the television program years earlier in NYC while in graduate school, and, when seeking films for this year’s series, remembered “it was very focused on artists from Pittsburgh.”
The fourth and final film in the 2016 series is A. Philip Randolph: For Jobs and Freedom, an examination of the labor unionist’s early life and career which influenced him to become a proponent of African-American labor. The film will be shown on November 9.
Black says it is his hope to connect audiences with the films via moderators who are relevant to the topics, but many who attend the screenings are already versed in the subjects. He welcomes suggestions from audience members for future subjects.
All films in the series are free of charge, open to anyone who wishes to attend, and no reservations are required to attend. Attendees will be asked to complete an evaluation at each showing, however, which enters them into a drawing for History Center admissions, books or other printed materials, or other relevant prizes. In addition to the History Center and Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh, the film showings are also sponsored by the United States Department of Education and BNY Mellon.
For more information about the Heinz History Center’s exhibit, “From Slavery to Freedom,” visit heinzhistorycenter.org/exhibits/from-slavery-to-freedom. A related “micro-site” offers a more in-depth review at heinzhistorycenter.org/fromslaverytofreedom/. Further information on the films is available on the History Center Events page: heinzhistorycenter.org/events.
By Nancy Hart