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Time For Rocky To Step Aside?


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The Rocky Statue at its original location, July 29, 1982. Five years ago, the statue was
installed at its current location near the base of the Art Museum’s steps.

Rocky’s been in place for five years now, and it’s been 35 years since the film character gave Philadelphia a boost and Sylvester Stallone a brand worth $1.2 billion. But eventually, possibly sooner than later, Rocky will have to step aside as a Philadelphia story that has outlived its time.

Born during a recession in a place with an evaporating manufacturing economy, Rocky’s day job as bill collector speaks to the lack of opportunity in a city of homes and a paucity of jobs. In the 1970s, Philadelphians still believed they still had a shot at bringing the factories back. It took several decades more for the leadership (by then Ed Rendell in the 1990s) to openly admit industry as Philadelphia knew it was gone and a constellation of emerging economies (Eds, Meds, Tourism & Tech) would have to replace it.

Philadelphians have come to their senses and moved on, except, it seems, when it comes to Rocky.

Like Archie Bunker’s Queens, Rocky’s Philadelphia is now mostly gone, though not entirely. The spirit of the ’70s occasionally finds traction. In 2006, the same year as Rocky returned to the Parkway, Joey Vento posted a sign at his steak joint on 9th Street: “This is America, when ordering ‘Speak English?’” Vento spoke his mind, as Tom Ferrick put it in a recent Metropolis column: “And what was in that mind? A heavy dose of macho. One primal scream. Several tablespoons of jingoism. A half-cup of xenophobia. A dash of hate.”

When Joey Vento died last month, so did a little bit more of that Philadelphia, Rocky’s Philadelphia. Vento clumsily said what Stallone’s Rocky artfully implied. “Outsiders” were changing the hue and cry of the workplace, schools and streets. Vento, Ferrick points out, targeted Philadelphia’s Mexican immigrants. Rocky’s enemies were African Americans: first Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers, then James “Clubber” Lang, played by Mr. T. Of course, Rocky’s racism was neatly tempered by Hollywood, but it was significant in Rocky’s persona as well as the brand’s success.

The Rocky story is one of personal victory, rather than any kind of civic victory. In the 1970s, Rocky couldn’t begin to turn around a city still steeped in mid-century noir, but he could, bouncing at the top of the Art Museum’s steps at dawn in grey sweats, realize personal success.

Today, Philadelphia offers more. Yet, thousands of folks visit the Rocky statue every year, admire themselves with arms raised in souvenir images again, again and again. There’s a connection here with a 20th-century Philadelphia story that has survived into the 21st, but how meaningful is it now? Isn’t this statue, whether it’s considered a movie prop, a franchise logo, or even art, just an artifact of 20th-century American popular culture, along the lines of Archie Bunker’s chair? Visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History see that artifact behind glass.

Someday, the Rocky statue will be framed by a similar narrative. When that day comes, Philadelphia will have something to offer about what the city is, not what it was. But first, we’ll have to get past the idea that Stallone has done more for Philadelphia’s image than anyone since Ben Franklin, as Commerce Director Dick Doran put it in the 1980s. We’ll still be moved a little (or a lot) by the Rocky story, and the artifact will always be with us. Only, in the future, we’ll think of it as on the shelf, rather than on the pedestal, along with many other compelling stories out of Philadelphia’s past.

The question is, when Rocky steps aside, or is forced aside – and this should happen sooner than later – what will take his place? That we have yet to figure out. But the time is coming for Rocky to become history – and in Philadelphia there’s nothing wrong with that.

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Philadelphia Department of Records Wins 2011 Award of Merit!

We’re excited to announce that the Philadelphia Department of Records has been awarded a 2011 Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) for the work on PhillyHistory.org!

Now in its 66th year, the Leadership in History Awards from AASLH are awarded annually for projects that demonstrate excellence in the collection, preservation, and interpretation of state and local history. The awards will be presented at a banquet held on September 16 as part of the 2011 AASLH Annual Meeting in Richmond, Virginia.

We are delighted to receive this award and appreciative of the recognition from AASLH. The photographs and maps on PhillyHistory.org enable users to discover more about the history of Philadelphia and its many neighborhoods and communities. We hope that it provides people with an opportunity to remember and explore our city’s past in a fun and innovative way.

Thank you to all the PhillyHistory.org users for supporting the project, and thank you to the American Association for State and Local History for the wonderful award!

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Words, Not Pictures, Tell Philadelphia’s Earthquake History


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“View of the ruins caused by the great fire northeast corner of Sixth and Market st. which began on the night
of Weds. April 30, 1856 – From the northwest.”

In case you were wondering (and many in the wake of the recent earthquake that shook the East Coast are) PhillyHistory.org holds no images of earthquake damage. Sure, the city has a long history of shocks and tremors, but earthquakes around here have been little more than curious.

If it’s pictures of devastation you are after, you’ll have to change your search term from “earthquake” to “fire.” Now, there’s a search term with teeth.

Just a few weeks after the city installed a fire-alarm telegraph system in 1856, a fire broke out at the Jessup & Moore rag and paper warehouse. It spread to destroy 44 buildings near Sixth and Market Streets. The conflagration killed two firefighters and threatened Independence Hall, the tower of which can be seen through the smoke in this photograph by James E. McClees.

Philadelphia fires have an iconography all their own; earthquakes do not. But earthquakes passing through Philadelphia did produce a steady trail of tweet-length comments that predate the many online observations and comments of August 23, 2011.

“Clocks ran down and china shaken from shelves,” marks the first time Philadelphians noticed the earth shake on October 17th 1727. (We have Joseph Jackson to thank for his “Earthquake Shocks in Philadelphia” entry in Volume II of his Encyclopedia of Philadelphia, published in 1931).

A local printer recorded a “smart shock” after “a soughing noise was heard” December 1, 1737. A few Philadelphians even claimed the shock threw them to the ground. Aiming to capitalize on this new market of interested readers; Franklin attempted to explain the phenomenon in the subsequent issue of his Pennsylvania Gazette.

Philadelphia’s only earthquake described as “ominous” struck on October 30, 1763, just as the ship carrying John Penn, grandson of William, landed at the Market Street Wharf. As it turned out, the “very loud roaring noise” accompanying a “trembling of the ground” was only that.

The shocks kept coming and so did the descriptors. On December 8, 1811 folks felt “a sensible undulation” and in the November 1840 earthquake was “accompanied by a great and unusual swell on the Delaware River.”

“Buildings shook perceptibly, sashes rattled and bells rang” from tremors on August 10, 1884. Two years later, on August 31, an earthquake produced “undulations in houses” and more bell ringing. An early morning earthquake on September 1, 1895 shook buildings, broke crockery, damaged walls of houses under construction, but not much survives that’s Twitterworthy.

Although Philadelphia seemed to be spared for much of the 20th century, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) “History of Earthquakes in Pennsylvania” tells of December 27, 1961, when residents in neighborhoods of the Northeast experienced rattling dishes and “loud rumbling sounds.” On December 10, 1968 toll booths on the Benjamin Franklin and Walt Whitman Bridges in Philadelphia “trembled.”

The moral of this story, of course, is that some stories can be told with pictures; others can’t. We work with what history leaves us. And when we’re lucky, we encounter descriptive gems as “soughing.” For that vintage word alone (soughing, by the way, means murmuring or, in this case, moaning) we are grateful.

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Continuing the Civil War at the Centennial Exhibition


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“The American Soldier” at the Centennial Exhibition, Centennial Photographic Company, 1876.

Our understanding of Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition in 1876 suffers from an ironic condition. The first American world’s fair was so thoroughly documented that the sheer amount of material keeps better understanding at bay. To come to terms with the significance of the event considered one of Philadelphia’s shining moments, researchers too often drown themselves in information. There’s just that much of it. Consider what’s online here at the Free Library of Philadelphia and here at the Library Company of Philadelphia. Offline, these and other institutions preserve even more. At the Historical Society of Pennsylvania there’s 30 vintage volumes and as many boxes listed in this 17-page finding aid (see the .pdf). Last year, PhillyHistory.org added the Free Library’s collection of 1,600 images, mostly all by the Centennial Photographic Company. These document the Centennial’s hundreds of buildings and thousands of exhibits.

With such multitudes of stuff, forays into this rich corner of the past tend to leave us out of balance, thrilled by discovery but still wanting discourse. And who could blame us from enjoying the simple sledding through the archival avalanche?

But there’s more here than stuff. So how do we get at the deeper meaning? Let’s parse the narrative of 1876, looking at less to see more. After all, here’s a defining event in the life of the city and one that remade the idea of the nation after a devastating Civil War. Only a decade before, the nation and the American people were rent asunder; the war killed or wounded nearly one in thirty citizens. Since surrender at Appomattox, there hadn’t been an event of national healing. Philadelphia and the celebration of the nation’s birth in 1876 finally offered a chance. Here and now, 10 million visitors would gather to see the new, post-Civil War America.

So we have to ask: why was a colossal, granite figure of a Union soldier posted at the entrance of the Main Building? To the company that produced the monument (and others like it) this 21-foot tall, 30-ton statue titled “The American Soldier,” “The Volunteer Soldier” or sometimes “The Private Soldier Monument” was about patriotism, but it was more about business. James G. Baterson and his New England Granite Company were developing a lucrative niche in the Civil War monument market. Inside the Art Building, now known as Memorial Hall, Commissioners had forbidden references to the Civil War. In reality, that taboo had been violated several times in the American displays, especially with Peter F. Rothermel’s huge depiction of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. But here, outdoors, stood a Union soldier for all to see. He stood at rest, but still he was armed.

After the Centennial, Baterson shipped the American Soldier Monument to Sharpsburg, Maryland, where it stands at the center of the Antietam National Cemetery. It marks the bloodiest single-day battle in American history: 4,000 dead and 19,000 wounded. Physician and author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. visited Antietam in the raw days after the battle to search for his wounded son, who had left Harvard to fight. “The slain of high condition, ‘embalmed’ and iron cased, were sliding off the railways to their far homes,” wrote Holmes, “the dead of the rank and file were being gathered up and committed hastily to the earth.”

Holmes the younger, though shot through the neck, survived to return to Harvard and later served as a justice on the U. S. Supreme Court. But thousands of other families lost sons and couldn’t afford to either find or return their bodies. They had only one option: burial at Antietam. And there, on September 17, 1880–the 18th anniversary of the battle—families that could travel gathered to dedicate the “Private Soldier Monument.” But every last one of those families that showed up was from the North. Confederate causalities were banned from burial at Antietam National Cemetery.

In the sorrowful days and weeks after the battle, the Union first took care of its own, identifying and burying. Meanwhile, as Alexander Gardner’s photographs at the Library of Congress so graphically illustrate, the Sharpsburg landscape remained strewn with Confederate bodies. After quick and dirty burials where they fell, these bodies were later dug up and carted a dozen miles away to a Confederate cemetery in Hagerstown, where nearly every soldier was laid to rest without name or monument.

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Why Remember Edison High School?


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Edison High School, originally Northeast Manual Training School, October 16, 1912.

Nearly every high school in America sent graduates off to the place we nervously called “Saigon U.” In the late 1960s, we knew all too well that some would return in body bags. But no high school in America suffered as many casualties as Philadelphia’s Edison High. This school at 7th and Lehigh lost 54 young men in Vietnam.

Today, the Edison/Fareira High School occupies a much newer building at Front and Luzerne Streets. Sacrifices of the original are remembered there in a large, memorial plaque listing the names each one of the 54 casualties, Addison through Zerggen, cast in bronze above a large bas-relief of the school’s distinctive Lehigh Avenue façade.

The days for the building that was once home to Edison (and Northeast High School previous to 1957) are numbered. Last week, fire roared through its crenellated towers and we saw spectacular images, including this one of smoke seeping eerily through mortar joints. The fire on August 3rd, 2011 quickly grew to four alarms and makes for a dramatic final chapter in a century-long story. While the cause of the fire remains under investigation, there is much we know for certain about the place.

“Collegiate Gothic Revival,” best known from examples throughout the Ivy League, “reached its full flower in Philadelphia public schools in the Thomas A. Edison School (1903-1905),” according to its National Register nomination. (See a .pdf of the 57-page document here.) Outside, architect Lloyd Titus reached back in time with his use of gargoyles and towers; inside he designed for the present and projected the future. No earlier school extant in Philadelphia had an auditorium and Titus’s innovative plan mixed classrooms and shops that were designed for very specific purposes. The goal: a school aimed not only to educate but to train a large workforce. The building’s first iteration as the Northeast Manual Training School assured graduates be not scholars or soldiers, but workers ready for an industrial city packed with job opportunities.

It was about training, but it was also about location. A century ago, 7th and Lehigh had grown into the nexus of Philadelphia’s industrial production. Within a mile, fresh graduates would and did find employment in scores of foundries, factories and mills. Among the largest and most famous was the nearby Quaker Lace, which opened in 1880 at 4th and Lehigh as the Horner Brother Carpet Company. As the new school’s doors opened, sounds from all manner of factories, but especially the clatter of more than 100 Nottingham lace curtain looms filled nearby streets. This sound is something like what can be heard today at the Boote Mill Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts—only more so. (See and listen here.)


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Miniature Breech-Loaded Cannon fabricated at Northeast Manual Training School,
later Edison High School, October 22, 1907.

That Philadelphia is long gone, and so are the mills. And if last week’s fire on Lehigh Avenue sounded a bit familiar, it’s for good reason. On September 19, 1994, local drug dealers hired school-age children to set fire to the Quaker Lace building. Mill operations had ceased seven years earlier and the police found a corner in the empty, block-long building a convenient outpost to observe drug traffic. An eight-alarm fire (twice the alarms of the recent fire at Edison) destroyed the police outpost, but also the entire factory, 20 nearby properties and 11 cars. A special report on trends in teen arson for Homeland Security documented the incident. (See the .pdf.)

Philadelphia’s hulking, empty buildings are poignant evidence of the city’s deindustrialization. Places like Quaker Lace and Edison High School had become popular destinations for vandals and, more interestingly, for urban explorers such as photographers Tom Bejgrowicz and Urban Atrophy.

As these authentic sites disappear, one by one, what do we have left? We have memory, of course, and we have the photographic record, which documents layers of time and good intent, including the ideas of educators who taught young people how to make everything from the finest lace to miniature weapons of war.

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Travels In The Unpretentious City


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View From Temple University, “Progress – Permanent Paving – Broad Street East Side of Berks Street. August 17, 1926.”

Philadelphia is my city. That’s for better and for worse, which can make living here inspiring or infuriating. But if I had to pick a single word to describe the real Philadelphia, it would be “unpretentious.” The real city challenges the notion of pretense and embraces ideas of community and comfort. So, yes, Philadelphia is more than my city, Philadelphia is our city: an unpretentious, shared place.

You know what I mean? Christopher Morley did. Morley captured the spirit of this shared place in his newspaper column, Travels in Philadelphia, collected and published in book form as he went off to New York in 1920. Before going, Morley absolutely nailed the character of the city. More than sixty years later, Nathaniel Burt and Wallace E. Davies explored the idea in Philadelphia: a 300 Year History: “Nowhere were the rich richer or the poor poorer.” Yet, that Philadelphia didn’t define itself by the “great empty gap that yawned between rich and poor.” Rather, folks here built something more interesting and more dynamic: a “vast, spongey, interwoven social medium of infinite gradations.” According to Burt and Davies, whether you lived in a house of “three or thirty rooms,” Philadelphia had something to offer.

Philadelphia can be anyone’s, but it is everyone’s. This notion of a shared city is even built into the name. The meaning of Philadelphia may be cloaked in ancient Greek, but we’re the “City of Brotherly Love.” Community is in our very DNA. That seems to keep us humble; it’s meant to keep us honest.

Question is: in our new century, will the shared city survive? That’s one of the things I consider in my position on the American Studies faculty at Temple University. It’s what I wondered about in earlier stages of my career (all in Philadelphia) which began in the late 1970s at the Library Company of Philadelphia. There, as curator of Prints and Photographs, I had the challenge (and the responsibility) to collect, care for and make sense of the city through its images: maps, lithographs, engravings, and photographs, especially the photographs.

Now, I’ve found my way to this space to continue the quest. This time, I’m fortunate to have at my fingertips (as do you) a vast pool of what is now known as “content.” My plan is to travel the unpretentious city and, on a weekly basis, share it with you in words and images. Let’s hope for an interesting, informative and occasionally enlightening ride.

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Selecting Images for Augmented Reality


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Work continues on the PhillyHistory.org augmented reality project, and we’re having fun testing and tweaking the project to make it as useful and enjoyable as possible. While the software developers write code and discuss spatial issues (including geometry and the calculation of angles at one point), we’re busy with our own projects over at the City Archives.

As Hillary mentioned in her last blog post, the augmented reality application will provide access to almost every image in PhillyHistory.org that is connected to a location – a total of nearly 90,000 images. From those 90,000 images, we’ve selected 500 photos to receive a bit of special attention. Each image has been “pinned” in 3D space so that it’s easier to see how the angle and view shown in the photo match the current landscape. The result will be a group of images that are oriented properly, meaning that the building in the photo lines up with the same building seen through your smartphone. Hopefully, this should prevent you from having to dramatically maneuver the phone to align the images. Selecting the photos was both overwhelming and gratifying as we got to spend some time exploring the huge collection of images. For more information on the image selection process, read “Something New in Your Neighborhood: Augmented Reality.”


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Choosing 500 photos wasn’t the last curatorial decision we had to make though. We also needed to select twenty images for which we would provide historical information about the places and activities shown in the photos as well as links to additional resources. To select those images, we teamed up with Dr. Charlene Mires and Dr. Howard Gillette, two of the editors of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, and Dr. Amy Hillier, the project director for Mapping the DuBois Philadelphia Negro. Together with researcher and writer, Doreen Skala, and the rest of the PhillyHistory.org team, this advisory group selected images that touched on a few of the memorable historic locations, people, and events in Philadelphia history. The selected photos cover a variety of topics and locations. An image of the Italian Market in 1954 and another of Gimbels Department Store in 1966 connect to upcoming Encyclopedia essays on the history of the Italian Market or Center City department stores. A photo of Engine House #11 relates to events in African-American history, and an image of high school students visiting a pretzel vendor gives insight into the history of formal schooling in Philadelphia.

While these twenty selected images certainly do not cover the entirety of Philadelphia’s rich history, we hope they will provide more details about a few events and locations. Due to the small screen size available on a mobile phone, we had to limit the text to only a short paragraph. With each image, however, we also included a list of sources and links to possible sites for more information. We hope you enjoy the chance to learn more about these amazing photographs!

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Cliveden: An Historic Germantown Mansion Redefines its Mission


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Photograph of Cliveden taken by James McClees in
February, 1857.

In 2008, three men made a pilgrimage from Philadelphia to Frisby’s Prime Choice plantation in Cecil County, Maryland. The first was Phillip Seitz, curator of the Cliveden estate, a National Trust historic site in Germantown and the long-time home of the Chew family.  The second was John T. Chew Jr., a member of Cliveden’s board and a descendant of the original owner.  The third was John Reese, chef and former employee at Cliveden, who is captivated by the untold stories of those who lived and worked at the estate.

What prompted their visit were discoveries in the Chew family papers, recently archived by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. These documents not only provide a rich record of seven generations of one of Philadelphia’s most eminent legal families, but also names and descriptions of the slaves that worked the various Chew plantations two centuries ago.

After driving through endless fields of wheat, Reese asked if they were getting close to Frisby’s Prime Choice. Seitz responded that they had been driving through the former Chew plantation for the past 20 minutes.  According to Chew family records, about seventy enslaved African-Americans farmed over 1,000 acres of land during the late 18th century.

After visiting the plantation house, they drove 40 minutes due east to the river landing, where two hundred years ago, the slaves loaded the produce they harvested by hand onto waiting ships.

As he stood on the river bank, Reese was convinced he could see ghosts of these men rolling barrels down to the dock.

Chew was deeply moved as he watched Reese tear up. “When I saw John visibly moved, looking out over fields of long grass, stretching to the horizon,” he remembered, “I was overcome with a deep sadness for enslaved people, and their plight. John – and the moment – helped me feel in a way I never had before the sorrow, the anger, and the frustration of people held against their will.”

* * * *


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Early sketch of plans for Cliveden c.1760, possibly drawn
by master carpenter Jacob Knor and Benjamin Chew.

Cliveden’s original owner, Benjamin Chew (1722-1810), was the son of Maryland Quakers.  He received his training in London’s Middle Temple, making him one of the most highly-trained lawyers in the Colonies. The Penn family recognized his talent, and he became their principal legal advisor.  Unlike other lawyers of the time, who had a penchant for flowery and wordy opinions, Chew’s writing was defined by brevity and clarity.[i] Chew’s crowning appointment was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Province of Pennsylvania – he was the last man to hold that position before America declared independence from Great Britain. In addition to his legal prowess, Chew was a shrewd land speculator. Much of the wealth that supported the family’s lavish Philadelphia lifestyle flowed from several tobacco and wheat plantations in Maryland and Delaware.

In 1767, Benjamin Chew completed a summer retreat in Germantown he called Cliveden, built in the highest Georgian style.   The estate had manicured gardens, wooded groves, and several outbuildings, including a large carriage house.  The inside of the stone mansion boasted elaborate woodwork and furnishings imported from England.  Although he possessed no architectural training, it appears that Chew had a hand in designing the house.


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Cliveden under assault by Washington’s troops
during the Battle of Germantown, 1777.

During the American Revolution, the pacifist Chew sided with the Crown and his principal clients, the Penn family. As a result, the Continental Congress placed him under house arrest in New Jersey.  After the Revolution, Chew returned to his successful legal practice. Despite questions about his loyalty, George Washington and John Adams had immense respect for him, and friendships such as these allowed Chew to reclaim his position in the Philadelphia power structure. Back on his feet, Chew repurchased and restored his beloved summer house, badly damaged by artillery fire during the 1777 Battle of Germantown.

The Chews continued to own Cliveden until 1972, when they donated the house and its contents to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Today, the house is filled with antiques and family heirlooms, some dating all the way back to the time of Benjamin Chew.  But hidden away in Cliveden’s nooks and crannies were thousands of pages of letters, journals, account books, and other correspondence that the family maintained over the past two centuries.  Like the Adamses of Massachusetts, the Chews kept everything they wrote, making the collection a boon for American historians. These documents brought the human story of the Chews back to life — they mourned the deaths of loved ones, squabbled over inheritances, and kept track of their expenditures.

The papers also revealed in vivid detail about how much of the Chew’s early wealth had come from slavery. Correspondence between the Chews and their overseers demonstrated that the slaves on their plantations were far from compliant. During the Revolution, when Benjamin Chew was briefly imprisoned, a number of his slaves ran away.  Those that remained on the plantations developed their own unwritten social and work rules.  One time, the overseer at one of these plantations wrote Benjamin Chew pleading for back-up. Two slaves named Aaron and Jim had badly beaten him after his brutal treatment of the work force during the harvest season.  It took three weeks for Chew to send reinforcements and bring order to the plantation. Aaron and Jim submitted to the whipping, sacrificing themselves for the good of their fellow slaves.


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Illustration of Cliveden c.1850.

After the American Revolution, Pennsylvania abolished slavery, but the Chews continued to hold onto their properties in the slave states of Maryland and Delaware.  But by the early nineteenth century, the Chews saw the writing on the wall. They decided to divest themselves of their family plantations and put their capital in Pennsylvania industry and land speculation. Benjamin Jr., who served as his father’s principal plantation manager, was put in charge of this task for his extended family.  In 1809, Benjamin Jr. traveled south to settle the estate of an uncle who had died in debt.  In his letters home, he was clearly torn between family financial obligation and the fate of his uncle’s slaves, who had been denied the freedom their master had promised them.

“I found it absolutely necessary to return to this Place which I did last Evening and tomorrow sell off the Remains of any poor Uncle John’s Remnants,” Benjamin Jr. wrote his father on November 15, 1809. “I have fortunately succeeded in providing Homes for all but 7 or 8 of the Black People—a Task indeed of the most conflicting Difficulty—I have I believe succeeded in giving the poor Creatures as much Satisfaction as they could have, under a disappointment in not having their Freedom bequeathed to them—they generally thank me for what I have done for them—the Stock of all kinds I have also sold except what is necessary to retain to secure the Crops.”[ii]

* * * *

The Chew family papers — donated by the family to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1982 — were opened to the public last year.  A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities paid for the meticulous archiving and conservation process.  At the opening ceremony on October 14, 2009, representatives from N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America) demanded that the legacy of slavery play a prominent role in shaping the presentation of these documents.  The meeting at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania at times grew heated. According to the N’COBRA website, “reparations are needed to repair the wrongs, injury, and damage done to us by the US federal and State governments, their agents, and representatives.”[iii]

As a result of discoveries in the papers, Cliveden found itself in the public spotlight.  Those interested in the future of Cliveden—people like Phillip Seitz, John Reese, and John T. Chew Jr.—decided the best approach was to face the controversy head-on.  It also could be an opportunity to revitalize what had previously been a rather traditional house museum that focused on the lives of its wealthy occupants.


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Artist’s sketch of the Main Hall.

“Cliveden was not afraid to face what the papers reveal,” curator Phillip Seitz said. “What we realized was that the grandeur of Cliveden was the very top layer of a very complex onion, an onion that needed to be peeled back.”

Since the release of the Chew family papers, Cliveden’s management has engaged the surrounding community in a number of meetings and dialogues.  This past fall, Cliveden sponsored a series of four well-attended lectures entitled “Cliveden Conversations” in the former carriage house.  Speakers included Phillip Seitz, who discussed the Chew family’s involvement with slavery; Dr. Erica Dunbar-Armstrong of the University of Delaware, who gave a broad overview of slavery in the Mid-Atlantic region from a woman studies perspective; Ari Merretazon of N’COBRA, who discussed his organization’s goal of reparations for the descendants of slaves; and Dr. David Young, Cliveden’s executive director, who framed the house in the context of 20th century race relations in Germantown.[iv]

Cliveden’s management hopes not only to bring about racial healing, but to more fully integrate their house museum into the predominately African-American Germantown neighborhood, making themselves “a catalyst for preserving and reusing historic buildings to sustain economic development for historic Northwest Philadelphia and beyond.”[v]


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Photograph of Cliveden, 1957. The Chew family owned the
mansion until 1972.

“We are giving people what they want,” Seitz said. “They don’t want more exhibits. They want story tellers, news articles, and they need affirmation that things happened here…not just bad stories, but also stories of survival.”

John Reese agreed. “Let’s have the courage to confront this.”  For his part, Reese sees Cliveden in a positive light, now that a more complete story is being told.  Exploring the house’s history was also a catalyst for friendships with curator Phillip Seitz and board member John Chew Jr.

“I love the house,” Reese said, sitting on a picnic table in the shadow of the craggy stone mansion. “That banister in the main staircase is solid as a rock. You look at how flimsy houses are today, and I have a hard time ever seeing Cliveden getting blown down.”

Special thanks to Philip Seitz, John Reese, and John T. Chew Jr. for their time and insights.  The interviews were conducted on October 8, 2010 at Cliveden.


[i] “Legends of the Bar,” The Philadelphia Bar Association. http://www.philadelphiabar.org/page/AboutLegends?appNum=4 Accessed October 18, 2010.

[ii] Benjamin Chew Jr. to Benjamin Chew Sr., November 15, 1809. The Chew Family Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. http://www2.hsp.org/collections/manuscripts/c/Chew2050.xml#series2 Accessed October 16, 2010.

[iii] “N’COBRA Information” http://www.ncobra.com/ncobra_info.htm Accessed October 18, 2010.

[iv] ‘Cliveden Conversations,” Cliveden: A National Trust Historic Site in Philadelphia.” http://cliveden1767.wordpress.com/visiting-cliveden/calendar-of-events/ Accessed October 18, 2010.

[v] “Mission Statement,” Cliveden: A National Trust Historic Site in Philadelphia.” http://cliveden1767.wordpress.com/mission-statement/ Accessed October 18, 2010.