Black Waiters, Soldiers of Self-Emancipation

Niagara Bridge, the goal of self-emancipated slaves passing through Pittsburgh

Ready to Swoop to the Rescue

You probably don’t know this.

Squads of black men and women in uniform routinely patrolled Pittsburgh and other key points of the Underground Railroad, often rescuing runaway slaves as they were about to be apprehended.

They are overlooked because they  wore uniforms of waiters and porters, chambermaids and laundresses.

In fact, that’s what they were.

Their heroics appear in anecdotes all along the emancipation route between Pittsburgh and Niagara Falls.

The goal of people fleeing the South was to get to the falls and go more than half way across the bridge to Canada.

If they did that, they would be something they had never been before — free.

 No one could claim them as property in Canada.

Martha didn’t get the chance to cross the bridge.

According to newspaper accounts, she safely made the tense, secretive journey to Niagara Falls and was talking to her husband in front of one of the main hotels.

A carriage pulled up and a man got out.

He looked at the young African-American and she at him.

“How do you do, Martha?” he asked, reaching out to shake her hand.

She backed away, turned and ran faster than witnesses had ever seen a woman run.

Martha ran through Prospect Park toward the ferry dock at the base of the falls.

“Stop! Stop her! $100 to he who catches her,” the man bellowed with a Southern accent.

He was her owner.

black waiter

Several men took up the challenge, but found themselves unexpectedly confronted by black men in hotel uniforms. They placed themselves between Martha and her pursuers. She “outran them all, even the husband,” wrote one eyewitness, and “plunged down the ferry steps by hops instead of steps.”

The ferry was gone. A lone boat at the dock was too big for her to push off. But, she leaped into it, followed by her husband.

The hotel waiters pushed it off with a handspike and it glided just out of reach of the pursuers. Martha and her husband “sent up a glad and defiant hurrah,” loud enough to be heard over the roar of the falls.

They rowed through the dense mist and over the roiling river toward Canada. Fifteen minutes later, they reached the Canadian shore.


The waiters went back to folding napkins. But, they would have kept a wary eye scanning doorways. Most were escaped slaves.

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