Acknowledging America's "original sin" at historic Cliveden House

Acknowledging America’s “original sin” at historic Cliveden House


The faded parchment at Germantown’s historic Cliveden House lists them by name — Cato, Jim, Abby, Bill, Enos, Silvia and others.

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An exhibit at Cliveden shows the names and shoe size of Chew’s slaves who worked on a plantation in Delaware.

The names are those of slaves owned by Benjamin Chew, a prominent Pennsylvania jurist who built the Cliveden mansion during colonial times. Beside each name is a mark, which indicates the shoe size of each slave.

“The Chews were the largest slave owners in Pennsylvania,” explained David Young, executive director of the  house museum at Germantown Avenue and Johnson Street. The shoes, made in Germantown where the leather trade flourished, were destined for Delaware where Chew owned the plantation he called Whitehall.

The unsavory side

Once known largely for the elegance of Chew’s historic home and for the Battle of Germantown during the Revolutionary War, Cliveden, a National Historic Landmark, has now incorporated into its exhibits the unsavory side of its history — its ties to slavery in colonial America.

The new perspective follows the discovery in 1994 of 240,000 documents found in the basement of the house. The papers confirmed that one of Philadelphia’s most elite families kept slaves at its colonial mansion in Germantown and owned nine slave plantations in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.

“There were no ‘good guys’ in the slave system,” Young said. But he added that Chew and many other slave holders in colonial America were “products of their time and their livelihood depended on slave labor.”

Cliveden House at 6401 Germantown Ave. gained recognition as a historic landmark in 1966 because of its Georgian architecture. The house, built by Chew in 1767 and occupied by seven generations of his family up until 1972, is now a museum that showcases elegant 18th century furniture and decorative art.

Cliveden House, built in 1767, was the home of Benjamin Chew, Pennsylvania's first Supreme Court Justice.

Cliveden House, built in 1767, was the home of Benjamin Chew, Pennsylvania’s first Supreme Court Justice.

But the site is also famous for the Battle of Germantown. In 1777, British troops hunkered down in the house to drive back Gen. George Washington’s troops, forcing them to retreat to Valley Forge for a long winter. Each fall, Cliveden hosts a re-enactment of the pivotal battle.

Until discovery of the slave papers, Cliveden’s history was largely defined by the freedom narrative that frames many of Philadelphia’s historic sites such as Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Today, however, Cliveden is attracting visitors not only because they want to learn about the American revolution, but also because they want to understand slavery in colonial America.

Bringing the full story to life

“These stories (about Chew and slaves) are what we are trying to bring to life, and people respond to that,” said Young. The exhibits, he said, wrestle with the paradox of slavery in the North even as the founding fathers wrote a Declaration of Independence that espoused life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans.

Historian David Young is Cliveden's executive director.

Historian David Young is Cliveden’s executive director.

The addition of Cliveden’s slave history to its programming has been well received by members of the African-American community who live in the blocks surrounding Cliveden. In the past, they didn’t pay much attention to the historic house because its history, they thought, didn’t have much relevance to their own lives. Now, they are engaged.

“It’s great,” said The Rev. Joe Williams, pastor of the Mt. Airy United Fellowship Church at 701 West Johnson St. “We toured it a couple months back. I lived around the corner for 47 years and I never knew about the slave history there.”

Much of the new programming about slavery happens in Cliveden’s modern-day barn, a former carriage house on the property, which was rebuilt after an arson fire in 1970. While visitors can tour the house and marvel at the accouterments of fine living in colonial America, they can also go to the barn and learn about the slave labor that made such living possible.

A film, titled Emancipating Cliveden, tells the story of how Cliveden’s slave history was discovered and made public by Chew family descendants. A recent lecture series has focused on the role of slaves in the kitchen.

Popular play coming back in June

A play, which ran for three week last year, will be returning on June 16-18. Titled “Liberty to Go to See,” the play examines Cliveden’s history in the 18th and 19th centuries from different perspectives, including that of James Smith, a former slave employed by the Chews.

He welcomes the audience at the barn and then leads them to Cliveden House where the play is staged.

Young said that the play, one of the museum’s most successful programs, is important because “the papers only take us so far.” By contrast he said, the play combines technology, the dramatic arts and collective memory to provide a nuanced picture of the colonial slave trade in the North.

Young, who is in his 10th year as Cliveden’s executive director, relishes the opportunity to do innovative programming. “The thing with house museums is that they usually don’t change very much,” he said. “But now Cliveden has gotten the reputation for ‘there’s always something new.’”

(Marissa Mazza, La Salle ’16, and Fernando Rios, La Salle ’16, contributed reporting.)