Revisiting history: students travel to slave plantation


Former President of the Woodville Plantation Preservation, Rob Windhorst, educates the History of Black Pittsburgh class about the Neville House and its residents. (Photo by Issi Glatts | Staff Photographer)

By Sid Lingala | For The Pitt News

According to Rob Windhorst, the colonial kitchen at the Woodville Plantation was “one of the most disgusting” locations in the house.

Windhorst, a tour guide at the restored plantation, said the head chef was a slave who was expected to work long hours in the cramped space, cook large meals for the family and sleep in a small space in the roof of the kitchen.

Laurence Glasco, a history professor at Pitt, and students in his History of Black Pittsburgh class traveled to the Woodville Plantation Wednesday evening and listened to Windhorst detail the lives of Western Pennsylvania slaves. Glasco takes his class to this plantation — which had the most slaves in Western Pennsylvania — every semester in order to expose them to black history in Pittsburgh that most people are not aware of.

“This trip tries to make the point that blacks were here from the very beginning of the city. They were here even before there was a city,” Glasco said.

Glasco explained how the history of the Woodville Plantation — located in Heidelberg, just outside of Pittsburgh — often debunks ideas students have about slavery in Pennsylvania.

“Usually when we talk about slavery, my students are really blown away that there was slavery in the Pittsburgh area. Students would say, ‘I’ve never heard of this. I thought slavery was down south. We never were taught that,’” he said.

The 200-year-old plantation is filled with original furniture and items. (Photo by Issi Glatts | Staff Photographer)

The Woodville Plantation — also known as the Neville Plantation — and its original owner, John Neville, both have extensive histories. John Neville was a wealthy land speculator and slave owner from Winchester, Virginia, who came to Pennsylvania with his son Presley Neville to fight in the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War.

Before fighting in the Revolutionary War, John Neville decided to settle down in Pennsylvania, and built two plantations between 1775 and 1780. He built one big plantation on Bower Hill — where John and his family lived and where the majority of the field work was done — and the smaller Woodville Plantation, where Presley and his family lived and where service work was done.

After the Revolutionary War, John was appointed by the government as a tax collector for whiskey. Many poor farmers were not happy with being taxed on their whiskey and stormed the Bower Hill Plantation in an effort to have the tax repealed, resulting in the famous July 1794 Whiskey Rebellion.

Glasco said one of the most interesting parts of the rebellion was that the slaves on the plantation took up arms to defend the plantation from the revolting farmers.

“A slave is somebody you don’t give a gun to because it’s dangerous,” Glasco said. “In fact, in most places, slaves with a gun would be hung. But they were armed and fought off the farmers on the first day.”

On the second day of the Rebellion, a group of 500 farmers returned and burned down the Bower Hill Plantation while John Neville escaped to the Woodville Plantation.

The Woodville Plantation still remains, and much of the colonial culture and information about the Presley slaves’ lives were preserved. Despite being more than 200 years old, the house is filled with original furniture and everyday items. Windhorst said the house is “90 percent original” with just a few reconstructions — new coats of paint and added clothing — made to the house.

Maura Kay, a senior majoring in urban studies, said the restoration work on the house made it look very real and thought that it maintained the presence of slavery.

“It made slavery close to home, almost as if it’s in my backyard. It was really eerie,” she said.

Windhorst said, aside from displaying the high social status and immense wealth of the Presley family, the house also illustrated the tough lives of the 28 slaves living on the plantations. He said it was also believed that many of the slaves were artisans and talented craftsmen in fields such as woodworking, cooking, distillation and blacksmithing. As a result, John often hired out many of his slaves and made a large sum of money from their contracted labor.

Monet Stanley, a nontraditional student, was taken aback by this fact and other tales of the harrowing conditions slaves endured.

“I didn’t realize he made so much money with the small number of slaves he had,” Stanley said. “It was sad that slaves had to work in uncomfortable areas and owners ordered them to cook for long hours and live upstairs.”

When Glasco recalled visiting the Neville Plantation for the first time, the trip seemed to make the history very real and concrete.

“You can stand there and close your eyes and kind of see through your mind’s eye, people walking around, and the tasks they were doing, and how they were living,” Glasco said. “It made it really come alive in ways that just reading about doesn’t.”

A building sits on the Woodville Plantation.
(Photo by Issi Glatts | Staff Photographer)

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