When Slavery Came to Stay

By Phillip Seitz, 2011 Brooking Prize Winner

America needs a fresh approach to slavery. In a political climate where people shrug off their collective responsibilities by demanding “less government,” and at a time when few remember the enslaved victims of the founding fathers, we need to reconnect with the realities of history. In this country, many African Americans—but also others—live lives twisted by the incredible grief associated with our past, as well as the few public opportunities to process their feelings with honor and understanding.

This is the story of a high-style historic site that discovered its own deep connections to slavery and looked for new ways to create meaning from loss and anger. In doing so, it began forging ties with its surrounding African American neighborhood for the first time in 40 years.

Cliveden is a 1767 mansion filled with Chippendale furniture on five-and-a-half heavily wooded acres that were once a Revolutionary War battlefield. The Chew family, who built the house, remains one of the most distinguished in Philadelphia and occupied it almost continuously until 1970. The historic home is located in a neighborhood that is now roughly 85 percent African American, although many of its neighbors don’t even know it’s there. Several thousand people visit the main house each year, most of them either antique enthusiasts or Revolutionary War buffs. Few others come because Cliveden is far from the city’s main attractions and in a part of town that some consider unsavory. Two days a year there are outdoor festivals: one for the neighbors, the other a reenactment of the 1777 Battle of Germantown. Although several thousand people attend these events, surveys show many of these visitors are not aware they are at Cliveden even as they stand on the grounds. At one time more than 200,000 historic documents filled the house, many dating back to the 17th century. The family retained ownership of this material until the Chew Family Papers were donated to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) in 1982. HSP completed a two-year processing project in 2009, and a 650-page finding aid is available online. Certain parts of the papers have been in use for years—for instance, Benjamin Chew (1722–1810), who built Cliveden, had been a prominent member of the government of Provincial Pennsylvania and one of the commissioners of the Mason-Dixon Line. Other parts received no use at all.

And so it was one day in 2001 that I noticed a mention of Whitehall, a plantation Chew was said to have owned but about which nothing was known. There were three large boxes of unprocessed Whitehall material. When I got to them a few weeks later, I pulled out a letter from overseer George Ford, written Aug. 20, 1795, in which he pled to his employer for help: “I am In danger of my life being taken by the neagroes[.] Last thursday evining I was beatin by Clubs till I was blody as a bucher.”

I don’t know where I learned what plantation life should be like, but this was not what I expected. Subsequent digging over several years confirmed a major story of the enslaved plantation community’s organized resistance—passive, active, violent—the like of which has been rarely documented (see sidebar). A few years later, armed with a 1745 probate map, a three-day weekend and many cups of coffee, I actually located and visited the property in Kent County, Del., where it remains virtually unchanged. Numerous inventories also exist, listing as many as 60 enslaved people on what now appears to have been the largest slave plantation in Delaware’s history. And this was just the beginning.

Since that discovery in 2001, a story of slavery and profit of epic proportion has come to light. It began in Colonial Jamestown, where John Chew (1587–1652), the first family member to emigrate from England in 1622, purchased four enslaved Africans and later listed them in his will. His son Samuel (1630–1677), one of the most important men in Maryland of his time, owned 140. These men and their descendents, down to the last owner of enslaved Africans in the Philadelphia branch of the family—Henry Banning Chew (1800–1866)—owned a total of 450 enslaved human beings, most of whom we can now name, provide with a date of birth and one or more places of residence. In addition to Whitehall, we now know there were at least six other plantations in Maryland, many of which I have visited.

The family began divesting itself of many of these farms—and enslaved workers—in the very early 19th century, and most were gone by 1830. But later in that decade and through the 1850s, they also lost much of their wealth through poor business decisions, bad economic times and a lingering dispute over the estate of Benjamin Chew Jr. (1758–1844).

So it was a wonderful thing when Samuel Chew (1832–1887), lawyer and scion of the family, got a job working for David Sands Brown (1800–1877), a prominent figure in Philadelphia’s vast textile manufacturing community. Even better, Samuel married Brown’s daughter Mary in 1861 and took a seat on the board of directors. It was the perfect match, mating the Chews’ prestige with the wealth of the Browns, and it solved the family’s financial problems for good.

We are still learning about David Sands Brown & Co., whose gigantic collection of business records has recently been rediscovered, but one fact will suffice: In 1857 the company used 1.56 million pounds of cotton to manufacture its products, almost all of it grown and harvested with the use of enslaved labor in the South. This was the source of the new Chew fortune; they had not gotten out of slavery—they modernized it. When David Sands Brown died in 1877, he left $1.3 million to Sam and Mary as well as control of the company, which they sold in the 1880s. Through gifts and trust funds, this money supported the family until at least 1960 and was probably used to establish Cliveden’s endowment.

Over the years of research this information accumulated slowly like water behind a dam, and there was significant concern among the staff that its release would not be taken well by either the board or the many remaining members of the Chew family. But it was also becoming clearer that Cliveden was heading down the road of so many other sites: It was dying a quiet, polite, irrelevant death, with nothing of interest going on and nobody trying anything new. The endowment kept the heartbeat going, but the patient was essentially on life support.

At this time an unlikely team was forming: the curator—a chubby, middle-aged white European American with a master’s degree—and the maintenance man—a slim, older, African American Muslim with a sixth-grade education and the culinary skills of Escoffier. John Reese and I spent the better part of three years working together as we learned from each other; I shared everything I found in the papers, while he taught me about being black—about the weight most African Americans bear, about how he feels every time a car stops near him at a light and the door locks suddenly engage, and why everyone (black) was sure Obama would be shot by a white extremist before he could become president.

For me, it was a sobering and transformative experience and opened my eyes to many of my own blind spots and deficiencies. For him, he got to see some of the real, unfiltered history of the site and of his people at their most courageous. His own tremendous intelligence and experience from many years in prison helped me understand how the enslaved people worked together to fight back, and we coauthored a paper about resistance on the Whitehall Plantation. It will be published in Delaware History this summer.

This creative stroke led to the next—which was to see the new material as a way to connect with our surrounding community for the first time. This was pretty daunting: The neighborhood had been actively ignored for nearly decades; Cliveden’s board is all white and the staff nearly so. Unknown to many of them, the site already had a reputation as a “slave place” and as a haven for white folks that neighborhood residents consciously avoided. Yet Reese knew firsthand how inspirational the stories of resistance were likely to be to an African American audience, as well as the importance of the history—bad parts and all—to people whose story had been forgotten, lost, covered up or even erased. He was right. Reese’s moral authority, plus the research from the papers, was finally enough to push the project over the hump.

From this point forward, many things happened, not all of which can be recounted in an essay of this length. One of the most important was the receipt of a planning grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Humanities in spring of 2010 to support real exploration into ways that Cliveden could communicate with the neighborhood. This included money for a wonderful African American community relations consultant who helped Cliveden organize a number of neighborhood meetings.

I had envisioned these as focus groups, where we would try out various ideas and see what people thought of them. However, the consultant had much more in mind, and she knew better. We started the meetings with an official welcome and a 20-minute briefing on the research. Most of the guests weren’t surprised to hear about the enslaved in general, although the number of people involved was unexpected. But when I started to tell the stories of resistance, you could have heard a pin drop—every time. Black oral tradition and history is filled with stories of tricksters and rebellions, but few have encountered real, documented stories of individuals who had the courage to stand up and fight back—and win. The emotional release and pride evoked by this material was awe inspiring.

This was followed by a question and answer period. People asked about miscegenation, about violence, about what else had been hidden, what the Chew family thought, where the money came from and why this had taken so long. After years of silence, they came for the truth—and answering them required stark, absolute, gut-wrenching honesty. Finally, a facilitated discussion focused on what the participants wanted to know more about and how they’d like the information delivered. It was clear that the staff needed to do a lot of very careful listening.

The first group, drawn from the offices of various area politicians, was entirely African American. Before we started, I assumed they would be checking their Blackberries and looking for the exit. Instead, they spent two hours in deep conversation about how they learned the essential survival skills for being black in America—the things they don’t teach you in school, like what to do when you are stopped by the police or are passed over for a promotion. Two days later, another group—from the neighborhood this time—came at 10 a.m. and stayed until 1 p.m. talking about racism, survival and their concerns about challenges younger generations will face. It was rich, meaningful, vibrant stuff. More than that, it was alive, and brought Cliveden to life for the first time in my 10 years there.

And their ideas! Certainly the best ones came from the community. Get a bus and have a facilitator organize a trip to the plantations so people can experience— and process—the power of place for themselves. Have a day when people from the neighborhood bring artifacts or stories that document their family’s historical encounters with slavery. We got clear direction that people need affirmation of the past as well as stories of agency and survival . However, history is not enough: We were also told to make connections between the horrors of the past and the injustice that still plagues us today.

They told us how to do it, too: Storytelling and spoken word are preferred over static exhibits, and people want interactive media and Web creations that can reach into the home. Afro-centrism was another issue; like everyone else, African Americans are not a uniform group, and the feedback went different ways. For some, participation in African-based culture is of itself a form of healing; they felt the power of a libation ceremony and the names of the enslaved on our building walls. Others wanted nothing to do with it. But all agreed that Cliveden needed to make its spaces and programs more inclusive and welcoming, calling on visual and other cues, and definitely, lay on some food.

The community sessions played an important role for me personally, too. After eight years of research, the personal toll of carrying this odious information in silence ate away at me. Other people’s fears—that the board wasn’t ready, of what the family might do—continually postponed the day when I could speak. One of our consultants repeatedly tried to draw attention to the human cost this exacted from the staff, but of course no money or attention is ever given to such things. Even when I finally presented to the board, it had to be carefully managed. With no African American members or guests there to bear witness, it was like telling the story of a far-off land, not about people who were suffering right down the street.

The opportunity to speak forthrightly to African American audiences was therefore a deliverance. They understood—better than I—the horror their ancestors had been through, the courage of those who had resisted and the pain of discrimination they still face every day of their lives. I would go home and weep, or sit at my computer with tears running down my face. I could finally tell the story to people who didn’t need to be convinced that a catastrophe had taken place

 Following the community sessions, we presented a series of four lecture/discussions on slavery-related topics called the “Cliveden Conversations.” Originally conceived as typical lectures to a passive audience, we postponed the spring programs until fall so we could have more time to learn about our audience. That was a good move: We reduced the lecture to 20 minutes and added a gifted facilitator to the program to encourage audience participation. The results were astonishing. People dove into the discussions, talking about so-called controversial topics with people they’d never met before, black and white. Over the course of the series, the highly integrated audience doubled in size, with many repeat attendees as well as people who had never visited Cliveden before. All this for a program where strangers met to talk seriously about racial issues. In fact, many people expressed sadness when the last program was over.

Shortly afterward we held a workshop in which another facilitator, an experienced psychologist, handed out 3x5 cards and told his integrated audience to write down their toughest question for the other racial group—and if you put your name on the card, it would be thrown away. Each question was read and discussed by the assembly—and some were powerful. “Do white people realize they’re acting superior?” “Why would anyone give up white privilege?” It was fascinating to see what African Americans—often silent—wanted to know.

These experiences have led to a new conclusion about Cliveden’s future. The historic site will retain its artifacts, buildings and grounds because, as always, they remain the material culture that leads to important questions about life. In fact, it’s fortunate that new research has opened previously unknown perspectives on many of these materials. Cliveden will continue to develop and deliver content in ways that are appropriate to the audiences’ needs and desires, whether it be through storytellers or exhibits. However, it’s clear that when the audience is included in the process of choosing and developing these goals, these steps can be just as important—or maybe more so—than the finished product. It is not only possible for everyone to share in the creative process, it can be a wonderful and transforming experience.

Jim and Aaron

No record remains to tell us what overseer George Ford had done, but it was serious enough to require a major response from Whitehall’s enslaved community. Young men Jim (age 18) and Aaron (16) either volunteered or were selected for the job, and they did it well. On the evening of Thursday, Aug. 13, 1795, they caught Ford alone and beat him severely—so much so that he spent much of the following week in hiding before he finally wrote to his employer, Benjamin Chew, for help: “I am very porly at this time and wold wish you to come down as quick as posable you can for I am In danger of my life being taken by the neagroes Last thursday evining I was beatin by Clubs till I was blody as a bucher with severll bad wounds so that I am hardly able to go about to see to any thing therefore I hope you will Come down and correct them to give me satisfaction for their abuse.”

The enslaved people already knew that Chew never came, even for events like Jim and Aaron this. Thus it took Ford two more weeks to gather enough white help to bring Jim and Aaron in for whipping. Even as the lash cut into Aaron’s flesh, he cursed Ford and threatened his life, which, Ford said, “I make no dout but he will try to do if he could get a chance.” Nor did Chew remove the two from the plantation, which would have provoked even greater problems given the strength of its community and the extent of intermarriage and family connections. This meant Ford had to work alongside these two men for three years before he was finally let go in 1798. The tension must have been palpable.

Two years after these incidents, on Aug. 3, 1797, Ford wrote again to his employer:

“Since harvest begun no less than three and four of the hands sick … which puts us very backward in our work and the people are so slow and indlent about their work that I have no comfort with them and some of them are so late home from ther wifes that they lose two ours time in morning and that 3 and 4 times a weak and as for the women they are not worth their vittles for what work they do.…”

At the height of harvest season, when every hand was urgently needed, the enslaved workers were doing everything they could—resisting in every possible way—to drive him crazy and cause him grief. And he couldn’t do a thing about it, because he knew if he pushed them too hard, there would be a bloody price to pay.

Jim and Aaron knew they had the whipping of their lives ahead of them when they went out that dark August night. But they did it anyway. Their sacrifice bought some distance— and perhaps some peace—for their community, and if they had to, they would do it again.

—Phillip Seitz

Transformation at Cliveden

In spring of 2006, Cliveden adopted a new institutional mission to reflect our increased attention to the Germantown community. Like more and more house museums, declining visitation and the desire to make a difference in a challenged surrounding neighborhood led Cliveden to explore new models to engage its community. Our active outreach, along with new programming, revealed how eager audiences are to discuss difficult subjects in history and to share their own individual connections to history in meaningful ways.

Newly energized by this mission, over the last five years Cliveden led many projects to engage the community through history, education and collaborative programming with other historic sites. Examples have included “Careers in Culture,” which brings neighborhood teenagers into the work of historic sites while also introducing college prep skills. Cliveden’s annual July 4th celebration connects the site with two Underground Railroad sites down the street. In “Germantown Speaks,” Cliveden staff trained local high school students to interview senior citizens about discrimination, segregation and civil rights protests. At each of the sessions, we came away a slightly closer community.

These programs prepared Cliveden to deal with its own difficult historic content—including the full story of the Chew family’s slave-owning past—in ways that incorporate community perspectives and voices. This work was the result of close cooperation among varied experts and consultants, staff and board. The nearly all-white board has been firmly committed to embracing African American interpretation, but we needed to look outside the institution for the tools to effect change befitting our mission.

With help from grants from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, we put together a strong consulting team with deep prior experience dealing with racial justice, the impact of slavery on today’s society and diversifying perspectives. They helped us build trust for discussing emotionally difficult history, assess the organization’s readiness, and use group goal-setting to process the material and its effects. It is vital to credit their work by name, demonstrating that expanding and evolving your story requires a full, diverse and experienced team effort.

  • Museum and nonprofit organizational development specialists Tammy Bormann and Wayne Winborne helped focus the board through education.
  • Barbara Daniel Cox worked on direct outreach to multiple representative segments of Philadelphia’s black community and led the community meetings.
  • Communications strategist and human rights filmmaker Jude Ray has served as lead consultant and designed the dialogue-based institutional change process.
  • Museum exhibition expert Janet Kamien and exhibition designer Keith Ragone brought a programmatic understanding for the next phases of implementation.
  • The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Tanya Bowers and Max van Balgooy collaborated with Ray to design a project retreat building common values and working with multiple stakeholder groups.
  • Facilitators Esther Flamm and Tom Gordon, who specialize in diversity challenges, led the “Cliveden Conversations” and two charrettes.
  • Psychologist and reparations expert Ray Winbush facilitated a fifth community conversation to address comfort levels in discussing race and history.

The results have been very encouraging. Thanks to an artist’s residency, griot storyteller Denise Valentine and 50 community high school students are bringing to life the stories of Jim, Yarm, Aaron and many others once enslaved by the Chews. We are reorienting the visitor experience with guide training and new exhibition and program strategies that activate and expand community outreach. Meanwhile, Cliveden’s board and staff are continuing their diversification and the board continues to support the aforementioned projects and direction.

We now have the opportunity to extend Cliveden’s stories in ways that combine the War for Independence and the Struggle for Freedom while avoiding the traps of “shame and blame.” We are fulfilling our vision to make history useful while building vibrant communities.

—David W. Young, Executive Director, Cliveden of the National Trust, Philadelphia

Phillip Seitz is former curator of history and fermentation, Cliveden of the National Trust, Philadelphia.