Pride and Prejudice

The compelling history of African-Americans is told through an extraordinary local collection.

Black History Month was established in 1926, but as President Barack Obama takes office, this year’s commemoration of the lives, history and accomplishments of African-Americans is perhaps the most significant ever. Pittsburgh is home to one of America’s most extraordinary collectors of African-American memorabilia, John L. Ford. He shares his collection enthusiastically with museums throughout the United States in his passion for education—including with the Sen. John Heinz History Center, where you can see examples this month in an exhibition, “Free at Last?: Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th and 19th Centuries.”

The variety of documents, photographs, art and artifacts in Ford’s collection is astounding, and they range from 8000 B.C.E. to today. Some of the most disturbing memorabilia in his collection is from the harshest time in the history of African-Americans—slavery. Leg irons, handcuffs and slave papers, including an 1840 U.S. census record showing the number of white, free “colored” and slave inhabitants of Western Pennsylvania. But there is also memorabilia reflecting glimmers of hope from the abolitionists, including commemorative coins minted to help support abolishing slavery.
Ford also collects memorabilia celebrating African-Americans in sports, music, theater and film, politics and government, and the military. So exhaustive is his collection—which comprises more than 10,000 pieces—that it is housed in three separate storage facilities in addition to what is displayed in his home.

What Ford terms his “obsession with African-American history” began when he was in elementary school in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. He was asked by a fifth-grade teacher what he wanted to be when he grew up. When he answered that he wanted to be an architect, the teacher said he couldn’t—because he was a “Negro.” Ford asked his mother what the term meant, and she told him it meant he was “colored.”

In high school he started collecting the silver commemorative coins mentioned above and studying history “in order to find out who I was,” he says. “I soon started to see that in the history books there were errors of omission when it came to our history.” Ford attended the American Institute of Banking in Pittsburgh while working part-time for Mellon Bank, then made history as the the first African-American to work for Harbison & Walker Refractories Co., which made brick for steel mills. In the 1970s, Ford returned to work for Mellon Bank, and it was then that he began pursuing “primary source material”: original letters, documents and artifacts. After Mellon, Ford worked for 3M, which was when he was able to “pursue more choice items” and became well-known to dealers and collectors the world over.

Currently, Ford is a part-time historian at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland, serves on the African-American Advisory Committee at the Heinz History Center, and is on the board of the Pennsylvania Council for History Education. While looking over a few of the many items related to our area’s African-American history, items from legendary sports teams such as the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, jazz greats such as Billy Eckstine, the extraordinary playwright August Wilson and legendary places like Wylie Avenue, Ford has a gleam of pride—and determination. “I want to record everything I possibly can for African-American history in Pittsburgh and around the world,” he says.

Our thanks to Samuel Black, curator of the African American Collection at the Sen. John Heinz History Center, for his assistance with this article.