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The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 and the Journey to Freedom?

On Oct. 22, 1816, a 14-year-old girl named Lucy took her first steps to freedom in Pittsburgh.

Born on the freedom side of the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, Lucy was entitled to the expectation of manumission that eluded all other blacks born before March 1, 1780.

All Lucy or a sponsor had to do was scrounge up the necessary cash and goodwill to make it happen. Freedom was a pen stroke away.

We don't know whether Lucy personally made the trip to the Allegheny County recorder of deeds office to begin the paperwork for her freedom, but I'd like to think she at least tagged along on that momentous occasion.

It's more likely that someone from the family that "owned" Lucy dealt with the clerk who looked over her manumission documents.

She may have been 14, but she understood the significance of what was about to occur.

The clerk, who was most likely a man in those days before the 22nd Amendment made women welcome in workplaces outside of brothels, eyed the young girl carefully.

Everything seemed in order to the clerk's bureaucratic gaze. She fit the description of the girl in the hand-scribbled document: "Lucy, a manumitted Negro girl of the age of fourteen years."

The clerk smiled at the man and the girl. It would be a routine transaction. "What is her name?"

"Lucy," the man who was most likely Hanson Catlett, Lucy's owner answered.

"Do you wish to manumit Lucy?"


"Are you Mr. Hanson Catlett, Lucy's lord and master?"

Mr. Catlett shook his head. The clerk scribbled on a sheet of paper.

"Are there caveats the Allegheny County recorder of deeds should be aware of regarding the manumission of this Negress, Mr. Catlett?"

Hanson Catlett looked at his 14-year-old servant. Lucy returned his gaze, then looked away, as much out of respect as shyness.

"No conditions, really," Hanson Catlett said, "except, well, we want to hold onto Lucy for another 14 years or so."

"Fourteen years, Mr. Catlett?"

"As an indentured servant, not a slave. We don't believe in slavery."

"I see, Mr. Catlett. So Lucy is manumitted ..."

"In exchange for faithfully binding herself to the Catlett family by indentured service until she turns 28 years old."

"For what purpose, Mr. Catlett?"

"Cleaning and cooking. Incidentals."

"That seems fair and eminently reasonable. She's a fine specimen. Wouldn't do her or anyone any good to turn her out to freedom too quickly."

"What do you mean, sir? She's free. I'm freeing her. Her freedom has a few minor conditions imposed on it for the next 14 years. She can marry, have children and do anything she wants as long as she puts the Catlett family's needs first. Obviously, she won't be leaving Pittsburgh."

"As you wish, sir." The clerk scribbled in the ledger. "You will receive a post in two weeks alerting you about Lucy's changed legal status in Allegheny County."

"Your attention to the details in this matter are most appreciated, sir," Mr. Catlett said. Grabbing Lucy by the hand, they left the recorder of deeds' office. Only one of them was smiling.

* * *

"Congratulations, Lucy," Hanson Catlett said turning to the young girl who was washing the family's clothes in a large tub. "You're no longer a slave. As of Nov. 5, 1816, you're an indentured servant until your 28th birthday."

Lucy took a moment from inhaling the fumes from the lye soap to smile. The entire Catlett family entered the room. They applauded Lucy's good fortune.

"We're so happy for you," Mrs. Catlett said. Lucy smiled. She only had to put up with the Catletts' bigheartedness for another 14 years.

* * *

Fast forward 191 years. A clerk in Valerie McDonald Roberts' office at the Allegheny County recorder of deeds stumbled upon Lucy's writ of manumission during a routine property title search in September.

Ms. McDonald Roberts, one of the city's highest-ranking African-American officials, couldn't wait to spread the word about Lucy's journey to freedom. Lucy's writ led directly to the discovery of 55 other historically important letters in the archives. Ms. McDonald Roberts transferred ownership to the Senator John Heinz History Center.

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Tony Norman

Tony Norman

Tony Norman is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist. He was once the Post-Gazette’s pop music/pop culture critic and appeared as an expert on cultural issues on local radio talk shows and television programs. In 1996, he began writing an award-winning general interest column, which, he says, rejuvenated his enthusiasm for the kind of journalism that makes a difference.

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