Uncovering Hidden Lives: Black Stories in the Mid-Atlantic
Many family histories are hidden in archives. A recent project, funded by a Racial Justice mini-grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, offered Cliveden an opportunity to bring some of these stories to light. Part of the National Trust’s Interpretation and Education Fund, the Racial Justice mini-grants support work at historic sites which focused on lifting up Black history in an inclusive way.
"Illuminating Hidden Lives: Black Stories of the Mid-Atlantic Region" delved into the historic records to identify and gather information about the lives of those enslaved by the families of Benjamin Chew (1722-1810) and Benjamin Chew Jr. (1758-1844) in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware. Over the course of 2021 and the early part of 2022, Cliveden staff worked with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) to digitize documents pertaining to the lives of the men, women, and children enslaved by the Chew family.
The documents were then reviewed and interpreted by members of the African American Genealogy Group, an organization with a mission to educate, provide resources, and create a community for anyone interested in Black family history and genealogical research. The goal of this project was to make documents readily available to the public, offer opportunities to connect with the past, and help preserve the documents.
With over 200,000 documents in the Chew Family Papers covering seven generations of the family, a scope was the realistic first step in the process. This enabled Cliveden staff to keep track of how much ground was covered and to let future researchers know where to pick up the trail.
It was decided that the scope would be the period of Benjamin Chew’s life (1722–1810); not only documents written by Benjamin, but others who overlap with this time frame in the Chew Papers and may have writings or documents about enslaved or free African Americans. The goal was to digitize documents first relating to properties in Philadelphia, and then spanning out to Delaware, Maryland, and other states where the family owned many plantations and other properties. Using these parameters, Cliveden staff reviewed the extant finding aid to create a starting list for document review.
Once the scope was settled, it was time to move into the papers. Housed at the HSP, access to the documents was limited by time and the pandemic. Initial document review was delayed until May 2021 when restrictions loosened. Over the summer and into early fall, Cliveden staff worked at the HSP to review about half of the documents outlined in the original scope. These included letters, ledgers, bonds, memorandum, advertisements and more. Based on notes from this initial review, Cliveden staff and members from the African American Genealogy Group came together to decide which documents would be most valuable to digitize.
This list was then shared with the staff at HSP to begin the digitization process. Taking approximately three months, 166 items were digitized and made available online.
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Within the 166 items, stories of bondage, resistance, and advocacy emerge. The accounts and ledgers illuminate names, ages, and materials or services purchased for enslaved people. Some of the services include medical care such as midwives for enslaved women.
The letters paint a more complex picture of bondage and advocacy. In a letter from 1805, Benjamin Chew Jr. wrote that the “Blacks” are left in Philadelphia during an episode of yellow fever while the Chew family is at Cliveden. It is unclear whether the African Americans left at the Third Street property are enslaved or free.
In a letter from Benjamin Chew Jr. in May of 1808 there is a discussion of young mixed-race girl named Sal who was a servant for tenant Billy Pearce, but Benjamin Chew Jr desired having her back in his household since “Mrs Chew wished to have her here.”
Another letter written by Benjamin Chew Jr. to his uncle Samuel Chew shares the desire of an enslaved man named Joe to be hired out in Baltimore so he could be closer to his wife. Benjamin Jr.’s response illuminates the inhumane financial calculations implicit in slavery; he asks advice from his uncle about what a good price would be to sell Joe.
Members of the African American Genealogy Group reviewed the documents to begin to make connections. Many of the documents related to Samuel Chew (1737-1809) repeat names and share information about families. Inventories and receipts from midwives unveil mother-child bonds and sometimes paternal connections as well as dates of birth. This information is invaluable to those looking to make family connections.
Together with HSP and the African American Genealogy Group, Cliveden presented a virtual Cliveden Conversation via Zoom to share findings, discuss how to perform genealogy research and review potential next steps. A recording of the event can be found on Cliveden’s website.
Moving forward, Cliveden hopes to continue the project with these partners and begin some of the recommendations from the African American Genealogy Group including document transcription, improvement of metadata to make the existing documents easier to search, and providing more context. In the long term, this work will lead to making connections with descendants of those who were enslaved by the Chews.
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