Certain People…A survey of Black elite in 18th, 19th century Pittsburgh

They had in common: financial success, high accomplishment, strong abolitionist sentiment, commitment to education, extensive community engagement, and, with rare exception, very light skin.
Since this is a survey, we do not consider full biographical treatment. Rather, we touch on the contributions of the Richards, Woodsons, Pecks, Vashons, and Delaneys, in a semblance of first-time-in-Pittsburgh chronology.
Benjamin Richards operated a butcher business and was one of the most respected men in Pittsburgh. Without MBE registration or designation—actually non-existent in colonial Pittsburgh—Benjamin Richards held a contract to supply provisions to the military.
Benjamin Richards bought whole cattle herds for his meat business and was regarded as the wealthiest man in town in the 1780s, wealthier even than the very rich slave owner Colonel James O’Hara, for whom the street in Oakland is named. That means that BR was worth more than $7,000,000, a whooping nearly $200 million in 2015 dollars. His real estate holdings in downtown Pittsburgh were vast.
Before he lost it all amidst white wheeling and dealing, in 1787 Benjamin and son Charles Richards, along with other Pittsburghers, signed the petition to create Allegheny County with the county seat in Pittsburgh, which was then in Westmoreland County and before that a part of Virginia!
Son Charles Richards was a successful tavern owner downtown. Trinity Episcopal Church recorded his 1813 marriage to a white lady, Felecia Fitzgerald thusly: “Charles Richards to Miss—.” You see, in those days the church did not want to document a Negro marriage—even for a White Negro—to an actual White, even an immigrant-from-County Cork-Irish-White.
As a teenager from Virginia, John Vashon served in the war of 1812, and was a hero by age 20. He had served on a war ship, was a captured seaman for two years by the British, and was released in a prison exchange for a British soldier.
By the early 1830s, John Vashon, one of the town’s wealthiest citizens, was the leader of Black Pittsburgh. He was a barber, landowner, and the proprietor of Pittsburgh’s first bathhouse, downtown on Third Street between Market and Ferry Streets. Elegant white ladies and gentlemen frequented his lavish baths upstairs during the day, and escaped slaves travelled through his Underground Railroad basement at night.
John Vashon was a leader in the forefront of every important movement for the uplift of Negroes in Pittsburgh and—for that matter—in America. He was:
Trustee of the AME Church,
Cofounder of the Pittsburgh African Education Society in 1832,
Founder of the Pittsburgh Anti-Slavery Society,
Actively engaged in the Proceedings of the State Convention of Freemen in Pennsylvania, and
Financial supporter of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator White abolitionist newspaper.
Vashon even convinced the president of the new Western University of Pennsylvania (today’s University of Pittsburgh) Rev. Robert Bruce to join the Pittsburgh Anti-Slavery Society.
Reverend Lewis Woodson arrived in Pittsburgh two years after Vashon in 1831 after teaching free and runaway Black children in various Ohio cities. A barber, educator, and preacher, he teamed with Vashon and other community leaders to advance their religious, educational, and abolitionist agendas. With them he cofounded the Pittsburgh African Education Society, the town’s first school for Blacks. There he taught the children of his friends and others who would go on to make their own marks.
Reverend Woodson became a Bishop of the AME congregation, and was a founder and trustee of Wilberforce University.
But, his major contribution to Black political thought was his five years of writing in The Colored American abolitionist newspaper to articulate his views as the father of Black separatism under the “Augustine” pseudonym. This consummate white-looking urbane and urban Pittsburgher advocated settling Blacks in America into rural no-Whites-allowed communities to live completely segregated, but self-determined lives. His thinking also included support for folks who may want to immigrate to Africa; but, rejected white ideas about sending freed Blacks there.
Among the elite of early Pittsburgh was a doctor of immense intellectual heft, diverse interests, Black nationalistic passion, and journalistic and literary achievement: Martin Delaney was all of that. Arriving in Pittsburgh from Chambersburg on foot in 1831 and younger than the elder Woodsons, Richards, and Vashons, Martin Delaney was mentored by Rev. Woodson and attended his African Education Society School.
He was a medical apprentice under the tutelage of white abolitionist Pittsburgh doctors including Dr. Francis Lemoyne (for whom the Memphis Black college was named after receiving his $20,000 gift). In 1850, one of the first three Black Harvard Medical students, Martin Delaney and the other two were evicted by Dean Oliver Wendell Holmes (father of the U.S. Supreme Court justice), caught studying Ivy League medicine while Black.
He returned to Pittsburgh and prospered, becoming renowned for his cupping and leeching techniques for curing ailments. Dr. Delaney published anti-slavery The Mystery newspaper in Pittsburgh. And he believed in Black Nationalism, searching the globe for a home for free Blacks to rule their own destinies. During the Civil War, he was commissioned a major by President Abraham Lincoln and worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau on behalf his formerly enslaved brethren.
He was among the nation’s first Black novelists.
Finally fed up with racist America, he and his wife and kids moved to Canada. Later, he and Catherine lived and died in Wilberforce.
Coming over the mountains from Carlisle, from which the Vashons also hailed, John Peck arrived here in 1837. He was a wig maker, barber, perfumer, tavern owner, oyster restaurateur, clothing storeowner, and he owned a lot of property.
Mr. Peck collaborated with John Vashon, Rev. Woodson, Dr. Delaney, and others passionate about freedom and justice for Black folks. He joined the various religious, cultural, and civic organizations committed to Black progress.
Astonishingly, he—apart from spiriting slaves out of harm’s way—often acted as mediator between escaped slaves and slaveholders. He was also an AME minister, who founded the Wylie Street AME Church, often preaching there on anti-slavery crusades. And Rev. Peck presided at New York’s Black convention in Rochester in 1853.
Like Dr. Delaney, Rev. Peck came to believe that this nation would never accord justice and equality to African Americans and considered immigrating to Canada, but remained in Pittsburgh to his death.
Evidence abounds that the relatives, offspring, and descendants of the aforementioned Messrs. Richards, Vashon, Woodson, Peck, and Delaney were and are high achieves as well. Exemplary, yet by no means exhaustive are the following:
•Charles Richards’ daughter, Catherine, married Martin Delaney and recruited agents to sell and solicit advertising for his The Mystery newspaper. She fed those made homeless by the great 1845 fire that destroyed Pitt, the Vashon’s home and barbershop, the Bethel AME church, and much of Pittsburgh.
•Reverend Lewis Woodson’s sister, Sarah Jane Woodson (Early), graduated from Oberlin in 1856 and in 1858 became the first Black woman college instructor in America and the first Black to teach at a Black college.
•Mrs. Rev. Lewis Woodson’s nephew, Henry O. Tanner, became one of America’s most acclaimed artists.
•Reverend Lewis Woodson’s son, Howard, received his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at Pitt in 1899. He was a designer of Washington D.C.’s Union Station, and H.D. Woodson High School there is named in his honor.
•Allegheny Housing Rehabilitation Corporation co-owner, philanthropist, and Pitt emeritus professor Dr. Nancy Washington descends from both Tanners and Woodsons. She helped secure the Commonwealth grant to secure for Pitt the K. Leroy Irvis papers and reading room at Pitt.
•Oldest son of John Peck, David Peck became the first Black graduate of an American medical school in 1847.
Of these overachieving inhabitants of first, only, best categories, who is the greatest? Who knows? And in any event, the answer would be overwhelmingly subjective.
Nonetheless, I do have my favorite. When Rev. Woodson declared that he had taught John Vashon’s brilliant son all that he could at the Pittsburgh Africa Education Society School at Bethel AME, George Vashon was sent to Oberlin College, where he was the first Black to graduate, in 1844.
George returned to Pittsburgh and studied the law with Judge Walter Forward, who had been U.S. Treasury Secretary, for whom Forward Ave. in Squirrel Hill is named. When Mr. Forward, who of course was White, declared George, who looked White, was ready for the Bar exam, he was blocked from taking it. The response was that he evidenced enough African in him to render him ineligible.
Although Martin Delaney tried to dissuade him, George decided to flee to Haiti. Waiting for the boat in NYC, George studied New York law and took the New York State bar exam there, passing it to become the first Black lawyer in NYS.
Onward to Haiti he went, where he taught Latin, Greek, and English; and became fluent in French. For all those achievements, Oberlin awarded him the Master of Arts degree in 1849.
Returning to America, in 1851 George established a law practice in Syracuse in the state where he became a lawyer. He opened an office in the Empire Block building, today the oldest building in downtown Syracuse, hard by the Erie Canal. He could not make enough money. But he wrote his epic poem there, Vincent Oge.
He became a professor at New York Central College, near Syracuse, but returned to Pittsburgh and was principal of the public schools for Negro children, and married his assistant teacher Susan Paul in 1853. She had been valedictorian and the only Black at her girls’ school in Massachusetts.
Disappointed at being turned down to practice law in his home county twice, George became president of Avery College in Allegheny City (the North Side since 1907) before leaving for Washington, where he was the first Black Howard University law professor and was permitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, but still could not practice law in Pittsburgh.
In 1873 he taught at Alcorn University, a Mississippi Black college. When he died there in 1878, his wife and children moved to St. Louis. George’s son John, named for his bathhouse-owning granddaddy, became a revered educator in St. Louis.
In 1927 Vashon High School in St. Louis was built in honor of the Vashons for their service to education. Alumni include Donny Hathaway, Elston Howard, Leon and Michael Spinks, Clark Terry, Maxine Waters, and health physics pioneer Roscoe Koontz, among other notables.
Pennsylvania posthumously admitted George Vashon to law practice in 2010, more than 160 years after he first applied.
(Robert Hill is a Pittsburgh-based communications consultant, chair of the African American Advisory Committee of the Heinz History Center, and a member of the Center’s board of directors.)
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