These American Lives

With part two of the Digital Center for Americana project underway, collections coming up the digital library pipeline include family album watercolors and oral history sound recordings that provide unique glimpses into Philadelphia family life, as well as how family life changes when individuals leave their country of origin for Philadelphia.

Najma Davis shares her first impressions of America.

Given the role that genealogy plays here at HSP, family history and ethnic heritage are especially fitting highlights, as they also tap into the question of how genealogy exists for recent immigrants and those that have been displaced against their will. Indeed, not all materials are delightful or even pleasant.

Among the massive linear span of the Chew family papers, three boxes in the collection document plantation activities and slavery in the North. Folders filled with bills, lists, and receipts seem dull and repetitive until they build context for human holdings. In the document below, the sale of “a Negro girl named Sarah” is chillingly ordinary.

The going rate in 1754? Thirty-two pounds and ten shillings. And the cost for impertinence? 15, 25 strokes, likely depending on the whims of your overseer.

Not all of the settlers or immigrants who arrived in America came for or received a better life. The stories in these collections include those openly shared as well as those, if we’re lucky, will be extracted by dedicated researchers. Some of them may evoke familiar themes, but history is always best when tangible. This project reminds us that each story comes with a name attached.

A controversial event

Anyone who says that people don’t care about history should have been at HSP last Wednesday night (October 14). Over 150 people attended an evening program to celebrate the successful completion of our two-year Chew Family Papers Project. The discussion at this event was lively and at times contentious, centering on how HSP has dealt with the Chew family’s involvement in slavery.

Many of you may be familiar with the Chew project through HSP’s earlier blog, “Processing the Chew Family Papers.” Archives and Conservation staff wrapped up work on this 288-linear-foot collection in July and placed a 650-page finding aid to the collection on our website. The Chew papers are an exceptionally rich collection that documents a wide range of historical topics, including land speculation and settlement, legal history and estate law, slavery in the mid-Atlantic region, the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, family relationships, women’s history, children’s history, national and international politics, farming, trade, industrialization, health and medical care, surveying and city planning, and material culture, among others.

Given that the Chew family was one of the largest slaveowning families in the northern United States, this aspect of the family’s history has recently attracted a great deal of attention from African American community groups in Philadelphia that are addressing the legacy of slavery, including the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) and Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC). Both of these groups have been working with Cliveden of the National Trust, the non-profit entity that maintains the Chew family’s ancestral mansion as a historic site, as Cliveden develops interpretive and educational activities about the Chews and slavery.

The October 14th event was titled “A Chew Celebration.” The notice for this gathering read in part, “Join HSP as we celebrate the completion of the Chew Family Papers project, a two-year project to process and preserve one of the society’s most significant collections. The papers span 300 years and provide a rare insight into this elite Philadelphia family as well as into the lives of workers, slaves, servants, and women from early America.”

In a flyer distributed at our event, Minister Ari S. Merretazon, N’COBRA’s Northeast regional representative, responded, “This should not be portrayed as a moment to celebrate, but an opportunity to heal from the trauma of the crimes against humanity committed by Pennsylvania’s ‘elite.’… The Chew family legacy, whose wealth is built with torture, terrorism, and possibly homicide, cannot be celebrated in a city where the African-American population is still suffering due to the outcomes and impact of that legacy.” Merretazon’s leaflet concluded by calling on HSP and the citizens of Pennsylvania “to work collaboratively to help repair the damage done to African-Americans by the colonial system of chattel slavery by launching an educational initiative to tell the whole story.”

This leaflet highlights some of the gap in perspectives that contributed to the conflict. Given that many people (and specifically many African Americans) in Philadelphia associated the Chews with slavery, calling the event “A Chew Celebration” was not the best choice on HSP’s part. But as our publicity made clear, we were celebrating the completion of the Chew project — not the Chew family legacy — and it’s unfortunate that N’COBRA chose to equate the two.

At the event, Project Archivist Cathleen Miller gave an overview of the project, including some general background about the Chew family and the papers, explained some of what it means to process and conserve a collection, and outlined the wide range of topics represented in the collection. She then fielded questions and comments from members of the audience. (I assisted with moderating the discussion during this period.)

While some audience members asked specific questions about the project or offered positive comments about HSP’s work, others criticized Cathleen and HSP about the treatment of slavery. Several people objected to the use of the word “slaves” to describe human beings (on the grounds that it dehumanizes people by reducing them to a condition that was forced on them) and argued that “enslaved Africans” is more appropriate. Some also latched onto her use of the word “sad” to describe the Chew family’s internal conflict and decline during the later 19th century, asking why she expressed sadness about the Chews but not the people they enslaved. One woman said she wished that the Chews had been killed. Minister Merretazon spoke at some length about the need to condemn slavery and tell its story from a critical perspective.

In responding to these criticisms, Cathleen emphasized that her role as archivist was to describe the collection and make it easier for researchers to use, not conduct historical research or analysis. She said that she had struggled with the question of appropriate language around slavery. She acknowledged that the term “slave” is problematic, but said project staff used it in the finding aid (along with “negro”) to reflect wording used in the original documents and to facilitate keyword searches by researchers. Cathleen also pointed out that language is in constant flux, and terms that are considered appropriate today might not be in ten or twenty years, which further complicates efforts to describe the collection. Regarding suggestions that she was sensitive only to the Chews’ pain, she described how she was shocked and moved by papers in the collection that vividly document the buying and selling of human beings. (For more on this, see Cathleen’s earlier blog writings about slavery and the Chew papers.)

This was a difficult event and I have mixed feelings about what happened. I think that some of the comments and criticisms were inappropriate or unfair. For example, in her talk Cathleen rarely used the term “slaves” and almost always said “enslaved people” or “enslaved workers,” a point which no one in the audience acknowledged. Several of the people who spoke had clearly planned their statements in advance and were not responding to the actual presentation.

Underlying the evening’s conflict was a basic gap in expectations about archivists’ role — we were there to talk about a multi-faceted collection and our efforts to make it accessible to researchers, while many audience members expected or wanted a historical analysis and critique of one specific topic. Note that HSP has sponsored a number of programs dealing with the history of slavery and racism, and two events dealing with the anti-slavery struggle are planned for November 9 and December 2. (See HSP’s events calendar.) After the group discussion period, one African American woman I spoke with expressed thanks for all of the care and attention HSP had put into the project, and commented that a lot of the criticisms around slavery seemed to be a matter of shooting the messenger.

At the same time, I think the evening had several positive aspects. It’s great that so many people turned out for the event. Despite the tension and discomfort, we were able to hold an extended discussion as a group, followed by many individual conversations between HSP staff and audience members. I am hopeful that we can find ways to build on and continue this dialogue. HSP staff members have also been discussing how we can learn from the event, for example in our use of language and advance planning with community organizations. Even in our role as archivists, we need to be clear that our work reflects our particular perspectives – not some imaginary place of pure objectivity – and be sensitive to the limitations and pitfalls this imposes. Partly for this reason, the Chew event also highlights the importance of further developing relationships with many sectors of the community and strengthening the ethnic diversity within our organization, including our staff and board.