The city of Pittsburgh officially launched the 2011 outdoor dining season in Market Square Thursday by explaining what those lights are doing in the pavement. When Market Square was renovated a collection of 14 LED lights was embedded in the pavement in the center of the square but until a plaque was officially unveiled this morning, most people had no idea why they were there. The lights form the Big and Little Dipper. Stars in the Big Dipper point to the North Star, which is at the end of the Little Dipper’s handle.
“The North Star was used by many people but certainly it was a center point in the Underground Railroad to take… people up through the Appalachian Mountains and up through Pittsburgh and sometimes on their way to Canada.” Says Historic Hill Institute Executive Director Kimberly Ellis. She says many of them stayed in Pittsburgh and built a community.
Even though it was not an official stop on the Underground Railroad, countless escaped slaves passed through Market Square. “There were businesses in Market Square, there were individuals, waiters and stewards who participated in the Underground Railroad and hid people,” says Ellis.
Ellis says Pittsburgh was a relatively integrated and racially progressive city in the mid 1800’s. “Downtown was the home to many black-owned businesses, there was very little [racial] violence in Pittsburgh… three fourths of all black households either lived next to or in the same dwelling as white households.” She says she hopes the lights and plaque will help to highlight that part of the city’s history.