State archeology workshops concentrate on free black communities in Pennsylvania

The State Museum of Pennsylvania will virtualize its annual archeology workshops on Saturday, focusing on stories of black history told through the lens of archeology.

Professor Cheryl LaRoche from the University of Maryland will present “Free Black Communities and Archeology” as a keynote presentation. LaRoche is a founding member of the Society of Black Archaeologists and recently consulted with the National Park Service on archaeological sites in federal parkland.

Pennsylvania, LaRoche said, is home to a number of free black communities, in large part because legal slavery ended much earlier in the northern states. One of the best places to see the free history of the Keystone State black community is in cemeteries.

“Often that’s left over,” said LaRoche. “Lately archeology has really looked at the preservation of abandoned and slave cemeteries because they are usually associated with a church, and if a site is from before the Civil War or during early reconstruction it is often that too Church symbolic of a school that probably once existed. ”

LaRoche has researched these communities largely through their relationship with the Underground Railroad network, which helped escaped slaves escape to northern areas. She hopes to discuss them in a more collective way than she has ever seen before.

“Black communities are often linked by either the founder or an extended family, the Church, or some other network of associations within the community,” she said. “Counties across Pennsylvania have extensive free black communities. Many people found refuge and places to settle here. ”

LaRoche’s work in attempting to preserve historical data, artifacts, and physical aspects of these communities often involves working at the sometimes controversial interface of the public, scholars, professionals, and local government officials.

“One of the things I’ve seen over and over again on the ground is a lack of understanding of what it means,” she said. “And if someone does not bring this up and does not make a statement about the meaning, the site will not be saved or the road to preservation will be rocky.”

Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill neighborhood had more than 110 black families by 1830, according to The Hill District Community Collaborative: An Oral History, prepared by Carnegie Mellon University students on the History and Policy Project course. At the time, the areas were known as Hayti and Arthursville, and both were home to multiple stops and safe houses along the Underground Railroad.

The Pennsylvania Legislature had already passed laws to gradually end slavery by that time, but the populations of both neighborhoods were decimated when many residents fled after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850.

LaRoche said she would call for an expanded understanding of the connectivity of free black communities in Pennsylvania and the interconnected ways the websites can communicate with each other.

The lives of 20th century black Americans are poorly documented in historical records, and the contributions of enslaved, contracted, and free members of these communities are largely absent from history books and museum exhibits. This year’s one-day series of workshops explores how archeology can be used to fill this gap in understanding Pennsylvania’s past cultural behavior. “Hidden Stories: Uncovering African American History Through Archeology and Community Engagement” takes place with nine presentations and a panel discussion on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For more information, visit, click the Events link, and search the October 30 calendar for “2021 Workshops in Archeology”. A US $ 25 donation is suggested.

Patrick Varine is a contributor to Tribune Review. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862,, or on Twitter.

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