by Sue Ann Rybak
Mt. Airy historian Phillip Seitz, 55, will read from his book, “Slavery in Philadelphia: A History of Resistance, Denial and Wealth,” on Thursday, Oct. 9, 7 p.m., at Mt. Airy Read & Eat, 7141 Germantown Ave. The book, which Seitz self published through Create Space, sheds light not only on the Chew family, one of the largest slave holders in the region but on Philadelphia’s role in the demand for slave-driven labor.
Seitz, the Curator of History at Cliveden House, a 1767 National Trust Historic Site, for 10 years until January, 2011, told us last week, “One of the nice things about being a historian is sometimes you find documents that speak for themselves, so even people from the past can finally have their voices heard.”
Seitz was doing research in the Chew Family Papers, a collection at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, when he came across a letter written by George Ford, overseer of the Whitehall plantation, to his employer, Benjamin Chew, of Philadelphia, on Aug. 20, 1795.
In the letter Ford writes, “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 neagros 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 letter was about the enslaved people on the plantation beating up the overseer, which is not what I had expected to find,” Seitz said. He discovered a whole series of letters regarding the Chew’s Whitehall plantation detailing accounts of previously unknown slave rebellions. The letters give readers an intimate look at the Chew family’s daily dealings with slaves on their plantations. “Through these letters, we could see with more intimacy than I have ever encountered, resistance on the plantation by the enslaved people,” Seitz said. “They revealed a whole series of relationships that are usually hidden because there is no documentation or because people have forgotten or even because people have tried to cover them up.”
He said that the Chew family, like many other wealthy families, made money manufacturing cotton goods from slave-picked cotton. “Philadelphia was a manufacturing powerhouse, which fed an intense domestic hunger for cotton products. The North played an essential role in supporting slavery by inhaling the products of slave labor for distribution into the national and international markets and by using slaved-raised raw materials to manufacture goods for sale in the North, South and across the Atlantic.”
According to Seitz’s book “In 1790, there were approximately 14,000 enslaved people in the surrounding counties of Philadelphia. They were all feeding grain into Philadelphia to be processed. So people in Philadelphia were complicit in the barrel-making, flour-making and shipping; all the trades that were related to this were dependent on some of these slave labors from 1792 to 1820.”
“Philadelphia has been poor in remembering a lot of its involvement with slavery and the slave-based economy,” said Seitz. The Chew Family Papers reveal that the Chew family, like other plantation owners, had “runaways, rebellions, legal problems, whips and blood.”
In another letter the overseer writes to Chew that “he [Raymond, a friend of Benjamin Chew] said they deserved whipping …Jim and I gave them 15 strokes only as he confessed he did Rong & was sorry for it, but Yarm I gave 21 as it had not been the first time he deserved it.”
One of the most compelling stories is about a slave named Charity Castle. Her name is mentioned in the Emancipating Cliveden V3 video on Cliveden’s website www.cliveden.org. A voice on the video states “these stories once veiled by the curtain of time and neglect can now be told.” But you won’t hear Charity’s story there. Her voice is hidden among others in the Chew Family Papers.
According to Seitz, the letters tell of a young woman Charity Castle, who is believed to have been raped by her master, Harriet Chew’s estranged husband, Charles Carroll, Jr. Harriet returns to her parents’ home at Cliveden accompanied by Castle. Later, Harriet’s husband demands that Charity be returned. Just before Castle is scheduled to return home to Carroll, she suffers a serious fall and injures one of her lungs.
At the time in 1780, the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery was passed. According to the law, any slave brought into Pennsylvania who was retained there for six months would be granted his or her freedom. Benjamin Chew, Jr., son of the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, had the power to save her by legal means but he chose not to, even when Castle’s husband, a freed slave, came to retrieve his wife.
William Lewis, a lawyer hired by Castle’s husband, argues in favor of Charity’s freedom, writing that “accident made her a slave, accident made her free, and it seems right that she should avail herself of it.” Chew later informs Castle’s husband after consulting a law specialist that “the law only applies to cases where the enslaved subject is in the state for six-month period with his or her owner.” Unfortunately, the letters end without the reader knowing what became of Charity.
After receiving a $75,000 grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Heritage Philadelphia program,
Seitz and the staff of Cliveden launched a series of events in the summer of 2010 called “The Cliveden Project” to explore ways they could present the newly discovered Cliveden historical materials. Seitz said audiences were stunned to hear stories of enslaved people who fought back.
Seitz said while African American oral tradition and history is filled with “tricksters and rebellions,” few African American people have “encountered real, documented stories of individuals who had the courage to stand up, fight back – and win.” Unfortunately, Seitz said that for a variety of reasons, The Cliveden Project was ended abruptly. Seitz said in order to heal as a society, Americans must be willing to make “history whole.” Seitz received the American Alliance of Museums’ Brooking Prize for Creativity in 2011 for this work based on the essay “When Slavery Came to Stay,” which is included in the book.
Seitz, who recently discovered he is a descendant of a Continental soldier who fought at Cliveden in the 1777 Battle of Germantown, said, “I learned a great deal more about race and met a lot of African Americans and saw parts of life that I would have never seen before in the life I was living before hand.”
Seitz writes on page 122 and 123 that he was “escorted off the property” at Cliveden on Jan. 28, 2011, that “my job was abolished, and Cliveden hasn’t had a curator since. To this day, it hasn’t been explained to me what was going on, although I assume the board of directors got cold feet, that nobody could talk to me about the ‘black thing’ without getting into legal trouble, or the Chew family simply didn’t want the story told.”
Seitz’s self-published book is available on amazon.com and at Mt. Airy Read & Eat, 7141 Germantown Ave. for about $15.