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3 Feb 2023

Black history at Stenton Museum

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February 3, 2023 Category: Local Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO: Dinah mural unveiling at Stenton Park Recreation Center  (Photo by Mural Arts and Stenton Park Advisory Council)

By Constance Garcia-Barrio

Among Philadelphia’s museum houses, Stenton, at 4601 N. 18th Street, near Wayne Junction, has a distinctive Black history. An enslaved man once burnt down an outbuilding on the property, while years later, a freedwoman saved the mansion when British soldiers threatened to set it afire. 

“Stenton has been a museum for over 120 years, and during much of this time its public interpretation has revolved around the life of its builder, James Logan,” said Dennis Pickeral, executive director of Stenton. “The stories of the enslaved African Americans that lived and labored at Stenton — whose contributions are important to the site’s history — were largely ignored. A full history of Stenton cannot be told without including this traumatic narrative that also offers examples of resistance and resilience.”

Built between 1723 and 1730, Stenton was the family home and country showplace of brilliant, crotchety James Logan (1674-1751). Born in Ireland, Logan—Logan Circle and Penn’s Logan Hall bear his name—came to a young, vibrant, dirty Philadelphia in 1699 and served as William Penn’s secretary. 

As the manager of land transactions, Logan swindled the Lenape people out of vast tracts of land. Over the years, Logan held many offices, including mayor of Philadelphia and acting governor of Pennsylvania. 

Stenton Curator Laura Kiem walking visitors through “Piecing Dinah Together” exhibition Photos courtesy of the NSCDA/PA at STENTON

His wealth from the fur trade paid for Stenton’s original 511 acres—today whittled down to nine, counting an adjacent park—and the mansion.    

Stenton’s outbuildings include a stone barn, icehouse, privy, log house, and a garden and a meadow whose bees produce delicious honey visitors can buy.  

Logan ran his establishment with the labor of indentured servants and enslaved Black people, Pickeral said. These workers dug Stenton’s cellar, plowed, planted, reaped, cooked, cleaned, tended livestock, and more. Sampson, an enslaved African, got sick of the drudgery.

Sampson not only escaped, but set fire to one of Stenton’s outbuildings, according to an article Benjamin Franklin wrote in the September 1, 1737, issue of the “Pennsylvania Gazette.” Sampson remained at large for a time, possibly hidden by free Blacks. Their assistance to runaways led the Pennsylvania legislature to pass “An Act For The Better Regulating Of Negroes In This Province” on March 5, 1725. Free Blacks caught aiding fugitives paid stiff fines.

Snapshot from one of the many community workshops for Stenton Museum’s Dinah Project

In time, authorities captured Sampson, tried him, found him guilty, and sentenced him to death. “The panel of judges that imposed the punishment included Logan himself,” Pickeral said. “Talk about a conflict of interest!”

A group of freeholders, local, white propertied men, found the sentence excessive, perhaps aware that constant pain from a hip Logan shattered in a fall soured his life. Thanks to the freeholders’ intervention, Sampson’s sentence was commuted to banishment. However, it’s not known what became of him.  

Jack, another enslaved Black man at Stenton, also angered Logan. “Logan disliked Jack’s fraternizing with the white female servants and tried to pack Jack off to merchants in South Carolina,” Pickeral said. “When that plan fell through, Logan had him sent to a fur trader near Pittsburgh.”

Dinah (c. 1725 to 1805), a Black freedwoman whose surname remains unknown, stands out as Stenton’s heroine. She arrived at the mansion as a dower slave, given to Logan’s son William Logan (1718-1776) upon his marriage.

Dinah helped care for Stenton’s costly furnishings. “Logan commissioned furniture from some of the most skilled craftsmen in the colonies,” said curator Laura Keim, “and he imported furniture from England.” On a tour of Stenton, visitors see 1700s chairs Dinah could have dusted and china she could have washed.

As a servant in a prominent household, it seems Dinah’s appearance mattered to the Logans. In 1760, records show, “15 shillings” were spent on “a gown for Dinah.”   

Freed by her request in 1776, Dinah began receiving wages for her work. Although free, Dinah chose to remain at Stenton, perhaps because her grandson, Cyrus, was living there.  

Emlen chairs housed within Stenton. Dinah likely dusted, cleaned and moved these chairs that belonged to George Emlen, her first enslaver who gave Dinah to his daughter Hannah at the time of her marriage to William Logan. (Photo by Chris Storb)

Tradition has it that Dinah saved Stenton from destruction during the Revolutionary War. It’s said that after the British trounced American forces at the October 4, 1777, Battle of Germantown, a pair of British soldiers knocked on the door and told Dinah they meant to burn down the mansion.

 When they asked Dinah, home alone, for fuel for the fire, she sent them to the barn for straw. While the soldiers gathered it, British officers rode up and asked Dinah if she’d seen deserters.

“Yes,” she reportedly said. “There’s two in the barn.”

The officers arrested the soldiers, the story goes, and Stenton was saved.

A 1912 bronze plaque honors Dinah as “…the faithful colored caretaker,” but Stenton’s staff felt that the description didn’t do her justice. “After two years of meetings with the community, Stenton will install a new memorial to Dinah,” Pickeral said, “a place for reflecting on and reckoning with the violent reality of slavery and its continued legacy in American society.”

Stenton will have two Black History Month programs, both free and presented in partnership with the Stenton Park Advisory Council.

“On February 2 we’re screening the film ‘Descendant,’ which documents the search for and historic discovery of The Clotilda, the last known ship to arrive in the United States, illegally carrying 110 kidnapped Africans,” said Stephanye Watts, community engagement coordinator. “We’re excited to share this hidden history via current residents of Africatown, a neighborhood founded by the occupants of the Clotilde and still populated by their descendants today.” 

“On February 16, Philadelphia’s African American Genealogy Group will host a workshop here,” Watts said.  “A consistent theme here at Stenton is family legacy, so we’re excited to kick off a community-focused genealogy series that will guide neighbors in doing their own family research.” Watts hopes that the workshop will “serve as an appetizer to the longstanding annual Nicetown Family Reunion.”

These programs could benefit children as well as adults, Watts says. “Both events would be awesome for tweens, teens and young adults,” she said. “With the removal of Black history happening nationwide, the film will educate youth about slavery and how it affects Black communities today, while also showing the power of communities to take care of themselves against all odds. 

The genealogy workshop will also offer youth the opportunity to hear family stories, and gain skills as archivists and family historians. 

Visitors can look ahead to March.  “On March 18 we’ll launch a “Deborah, Dinah, and The Dames,” a tour celebrating Women’s History Month,” Watts said. This free program will include brunch for guests. 

Administered by the Colonial Dames of Pennsylvania and The Site and Relic Society of Germantown, Stenton is open for tours from April through December and at other times by appointment. Masks and social distancing are required indoors. Call (215) 329-7312 or visit

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