The Square Route to Freedom

These days, you don't need to rely on the North Star to chart a course to Market Square. But in the years before the Civil War erupted 150 years ago between the North and South, runaway slaves looked to the heavens above to find their way to the North on the Underground Railroad. Which is why Mayor Luke Ravenstahl led other dignitaries in the Square to unveil a commemorative plaque honoring Pittsburgh's proud past in helping African-American citizens escape bondage and live as free men and women.

Now, even though we're going to mix a little astronomy and history here for a moment or two, you don't need to worry since there's no test at the end. Still, we really want to invite everyone who visits the Square to take a moment or two to see the plaque — and the special LED Big and Little Dippers embedded in the center of the Square— to understand and appreciate the courage of African Americans seeking their freedom and the many brave Pittsburghers who helped them on their way.

Okay, if you want to spot the North Star, all you have to do is stand at the plaque and tilt your head back a bit and peer into the skies just over the roof of the Camera Repair Service building. Yes, it works a whole lot better if you try this after dark. Now, the North Star is always in the same spot in the sky (polar North) and the other stars in the constellations rotate around it through the night.  The lights in the ground are arranged as the stars would have been seen at 8pm on June 2, 1835. The sun is setting later and later now that spring has sprung, but you might catch a glimmer at 8pm.  The 8pm arrangement honors the first recorded meeting of the Pittsburgh Anti-Slavery Society.  Although there were plenty of abolitionist activites in the Burgh before that date this meeting was actually advertised in the newspaper as an organized and public meeting — more than a quarter of a century before the first cannon shot fired at Ft. Sumter in South Carolina set off the War Between The States.  Incidentally, this week marks the 150th anniversary of that first shot.  The rebels opened fire on Fort Sumter on April 12 at 4:30am.  Today, April 14, marks the day the first union soldier died.

Of course, we like to think we're near know-it-alls when it comes to the Square's storied past.  But we know when to make way for the professionals... Dr. Kimberly Ellis — she's the executive director of the Historic Hill Institute — mentioned that business owners and waiters in and around the Square often hid runaway slaves during their passage through the city. And did you know that in 1850 about 75 percent of the city's African American citizens lived beside white neighbors? Well, you can learn this and more on one of theHistoric Hill Institute's two Underground Railroad tours.

At a spry 97-years-old, Virginia O'Connor still can't get enough of the City she loves.  Collecting, recording and researching since her birth in 1914, it was Virginia who brought about the deeper investigation into Market Square's history with the Underground Railroad when she sent some unique documents to the renovation team - information that did not exist in record anywhere else.  You could say that Virginia O'Connor really did her homework when it comes to Pittsburgh's role in the Underground Railroad.  With a dedication and determination that would outshine people a quarter of her age, Virgina's commitment to the cause is truly a reason to celebrate.  Special thanks to the team of historians that verified and supplemented the information from Virginia, Dr. Laurence Glasco, John L. Ford (seen in the photo above), Dr. Kimberly Ellis (also in the above photo), and Terri Blanchette.

Along with honoring the city's strong role as a hot bed of abolition activity, the gathering also officially opened the al fresco dining and fun season in the Square. On hand to help the mayor usher in the festivities were PDP board chair Rich Beynon, Lloyd Wright of Sen. Ferlo's office, representatives from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, John Rohe of Colcom Foundation, Zach Winghart of Winghart's Burger and Whiskey Bar, developer Lucas Piatt, Bella Sera chef Jason Capps other Square business owners and regulars.

You read it here. History happens in Market Square. Make sure you're there when it does.

Special thanks to: Dr. Laurence Glasco, University of Pittsburgh, Department of History; John Ford, Historian and Curator of Artifacts and Documents; Dr. Kimberly Ellis, Historic Hill Institute, Executive Director; Terri Blanchette, Heinz History Center, Director of Community Programs; Bomani Howze, instrumental in assembling the team of researchers; Virginia O’Connor, a private citizen who began the investigation by sharing family history; Dina Klavon and Associates, designers; Hal Hilbish, lighting; Wilbur Smith and Associates, engineers; A. Merante Constracting, construciton adn installation.

The Market Square renovation is a project of Mayor Ravenstahl and the City of Pittsburgh. It is the culmination of several years of public process and has been made possible through the leadership, vision and financial contributions of the City of Pittsburgh, Heinz Endowments, Richard King Mellon Foundation, Colcom Foundation and Hillman Foundation.

PS  Other reasons this week is cool:

“The municipality of Washington, D.C., celebrates April 16 as Emancipation Day. On that day in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act for the release of certain persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia.  The Act freed about 3,100 enslaved persons in the District of Columbia nine months before President Lincoln issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation. The District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act represents the only example of compensation by the federal government to former owners of emancipated slaves.

This is the reason tax day is not April 15 this year but was moved to April 18.  The IRS abides by D.C. holidays in addition to federal holidays.

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