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.

A Law That Stirred, Upset the Pot

Being an escaped slave was less of a problem before, before Congress passed the infamous Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.

It caused intense trepidation among slaves who had freed themselves long before,  and among all African-Americans who could be mistaken for a slave.

Abolitionist sentiment in Pittsburgh and throughout the North grew toward the inevitable — Civil War.

The fugitive law allowed slave owners and their agents to pursue and arrest fugitives anywhere in the United States. Those grabbed were not entitled to a jury trial, to call witnesses,  or to testify themselves.

Basically, if someone said you were the property of someone in the South —  and you didn’t have paperwork proving otherwise — well, sorry, put on these shackles and have a good trip.

If anyone helped one of the fugitives, they better be ready to pay a $1,000 fine. It took most people a year to earn that much. If they didn’t have the money, they could do six months in jail.

Blacks Flee Pittsburgh

Fear spread and blacks without paperwork left Pittsburgh and other places along the emancipation route.

A Baptist church in Buffalo, N.Y., lost 100 members as they fled together to Canada. Another Baptist church in Rochester, N.Y.,  saw nearly all of its 114 members leave.

Black Pittsburghers left in armed “squads” of 40 to 50. Each had a captain and all members resolved to die rather than be enslaved again.

Newspapers expressed surprise at how many there were.  200 reportedly left in a week’s time. Many, it should be noted, were hotel waiters.

“The situation at this time was exciting in the extreme and numerous meetings were held denouncing the enactment of the law,” wrote Irene E. Williams for the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society in 1920.

Large rallies on Pittsburgh’s Diamond and in Allegheny City produced a resolve to publicize, intimidate and hinder anyone cooperating with slave catchers, she wrote.

The $1,000 that could be spent on a fine for helping a self-emancipated slave would be enough to buy that slave’s freedom. More often than not, that is what the owners wanted — money for their property.

Pittsburghers became willing to ante up.

Husband Buys Wife

Robert and Julia Mason apparently had been working and living in Allegheny City, now Pittsburgh’s North Side, for some time.

He was a freedman. Julia, 35,  was owned by G.W. Baker of Winchester, Va.

The fugitive law meant Baker, or a hired slave catcher, could come and take her away.

Robert opted to buy her freedom. Baker said he wanted $600. That’s the equivalent of $18,300 today.

Within a year of the law’s passage, Mason made final payment to Baker. The transaction was recorded at Allegheny County courthouse to ensure she could prove she was a free woman.

It seems likely the community raised the money for her freedom.

Shave and a Haircut

George White, a mulatto youth, was sweeping the floor when a Mr. Rose of Wellsburg, Va., stopped in.

He recognized the boy as his property. (Son? Nephew? Grandson?)

The barber, J.B. Vashon, didn’t slit Rose’s throat. He instead paid Mr. Rose $200.

That, he said, was better than seeing the boy taken back into slavery. The sale was recorded in federal court.

Vashon was black,  one of only two African-Americans owning a business downtown. The other was John Peck, who owned an oyster house. Both were active members of the Underground Railroad.

Kentucky Reclaims Preacher Man

The first local case to go before a federal judge was that of a “colored man named Woodson.”

He owned a home at Beaver, had been preaching for two years and was characterized as a thrifty mechanic. Mrs. Byers of Kentucky claimed he was hers, and that he had been two years gone.

Woodson’s defense attorney tried to portray him as someone else, but federal Judge Thomas Irwin ruled that he was who she said he was.

He ordered Woodson kept in irons until delivered to his owner.

As soon as the gavel came down, the judge’s clerk rushed to raise money for Woodson’s freedom. Several others did the same and it was evident that sufficient money could be raised in a few hours.

But, river boats ran on a schedule and his was not waiting.

A guard accompanied the prisoner to the boat, where a protesting crowd of 200 to 300 people had assembled. But, they let him go.

Woodson was returned to Kentucky and to Mrs. Byers.

Beaver residents raised $250 and Pittsburghers chipped in enough to buy Woodson’s freedom. Four months later, he was listed as the main speaker at a grove in Oakland.

The “colored people” there were celebrating the emancipation of 800,000 negroes in the Caribbean. It took another 12 years and a Civil War for this country to proclaim that no one is anyone’s property.

Delany often directed waitstaff to rescue slaves His marker is downtown in front of 5 PPG Place.
Delany often directed waitstaff to rescue slaves. His marker is downtown in front of 5 PPG Place. His story is here.

Two Rescue Attempts

In March 1855, things got nasty at two city hotels, or at least the newspaper coverage did.

Waiters at the St. Charles Hotel tried to liberate a young black nurse from Leonard Boyd and his wife after they checked in.

Boyd resisted, and the nurse said she was not interested in liberation.

Indignantly, Boyd packed up and got out of town.

The next day,  waiters rescued Caroline Cooper at the City Hotel.

Martin R. Delany, a prominent early black leader whose writing inspired the likes of Malcolm X,  directed them to do so.

She was dragged kicking and screaming from breakfast in the hotel dining room,  forced outside and pushed along Third Street to a hiding spot on Wood Street.

One of the hotel owners quickly went to Delany and convinced him Cooper was not a slave to the Slaymaker family, but a free servant.

That is what she had been screaming to her abductors. The waiters returned the woman to the hotel and gave her a freedom certificate signed by Delany.

It would ensure against future “rescues.”

Delany explained the mission had been to free a slave owned by a friend of the Slaymakers.  That slave had previously indicated a desire for rescue. But, his owner took him away unnoticed. 

The waiters unwisely shifted their focus to Cooper, Delany said.

Pittsburgh newspapers, nonetheless, preached against negro insurrection and how it would ruin city relations with out-of-town businessmen.

By June, they were getting more positive press again.

Black Travelers Aid Society 

It seems a Southern planter had freed his slaves and they were in Pittsburgh with an agent of the owner. He was to take them to the place of safety designated in the planter’s will.

The agent would not tell Underground Railroad representatives just where that was.

So, they advised the six freed slaves to get off the river boat and away from the agent. They did.

“They had more sense than to trust themselves and their liberty to uncertainty of a trip on a Western steamboat bound for the Southwest,” the Gazette wrote.

It was suspected the agent would sell them back into slavery as they passed through the slave states.

“Pittsburgh was renowned both in the North and South for the care it took of fugitive slaves coming within its limits,” Williams wrote in her 1920 treatise.

Slave catchers and slave owners, it would seem, got the opposite treatment. They could not have felt welcome in Pittsburgh.

They would have had to keep one eye open while they slept in its hotels or aboard its boats and trains. Thanks to the black men and women in uniform.    

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