The truth about Cliveden: The Chew Family had slaves and it’s time to talk about it

This Independence Day, Cliveden in Northwest Philadelphia, will begin telling a new story about itself that may surprise many residents.

The Cliveden house, located in Historic Germantown at 6401 Germantown Avenue, is known as the site where “The Battle of Germantown” was fought—an unsuccessful attempt by George Washington’s army to oust British troops in 1777.

Cliveden will debut on July 4 the work of their new project, Emancipating Cliveden and its new exhibit Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness?

The new narrative details the role the house and its owners, the Chew Family, played as slave owners.

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Cliveden to tell the whole story

NewsWorks got a preview of the new exhibit on Mt. Airy day.

Jason Allen, the Director of Interpretation at Cliveden, is excited about the prospects of the new exhibit.

“The idea is for America to be able to see itself through Cliveden and the stories of the house that have been illuminated for us by the Chew papers.”

“It also gives us an opportunity as a house museum to fulfill a goal we had to be more of a community asset—to really reflect the community that we sit in.

If we’re going to look at America and celebrate Philadelphia’s history, our argument is that we’re going to have to come to grips with slavery. The trick has been to tell the story without shame and without blame, and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

Allen explains that to many, the news of Cliveden’s ties with slavery is no surprise.


The two views of Cliveden

“Up until the 1990s the African American community purely thought of the house as associated with slavery, but the community that actually came to the house, and those who were on the board, did not.”

“History and memory can sometimes be two different things. We have oral traditions. The story of enslavement got out in this community and became an oral tradition but because it wasn’t official history, no one talked about it.”


Cliveden as a place to talk about race

For Cliveden’s current Executive Director David Young, this project could give the historic home an important—and relevant—role in the future: A safe-space where people can come together and talk about slavery and the complex context in which these stories are derived.

“We’d like to consider ourselves a picnic blanket where we can discuss race, memory and history without screaming at each other. Germantown is a great place to do that…we will have succeeded if a visitor leaves Cliveden with a couple of thoughts. We’re assuming that the people who come to Cliveden think they know a lot about history. There’s a lot more to it.”


What the Chew Family papers revealed

The roots of this project stem from a discovery made in the year 2000 by former Curator of History and Fermentation, Phillip Seitz. He and other members of a team began to work their way through a collection of hundreds of thousands of documents belonging to the Chew Family. The papers clearly documented the family’s extensive involvement in the slave trade.

Upon discovering three boxes labeled “Whitehall,” one of the Chew plantations in Delaware, Seitz began to piece together a story of violent altercations between Chew’s slaves and a white overseer.

It was stories like this that helped Cliveden secure a $75,000 grant from the Heritage Philadelphia Program at the Pew Charitable Trust in 2010.

Cliveden was able to invite members of the neighborhood to discuss these new findings and to see what they were more interested in learning about during programs they called Cliveden Conversations.

“The number of people who came to Cliveden and said to us that their lives would have been different if they had known this when they were growing up made this an important project,” Seitz said.

As the discussions with community members began to gain momentum, the story of Cliveden’s past continued to unfold. The former curator learned that money earned by the Chew’s in the 19th century through the manufacturing of over 1.5 million pounds of slave-grown cotton, was the same money paying his salary. The money generates Cliveden’s endowment and continues to support the Chew family today.


Debate over Cliveden’s new role begins

Seitz was fired in February 2011 over a dispute about what role Cliveden should take in the future.

Seitz’ vision for Cliveden was for it to be a place where people could talk about race and white privilege.

Seitz believes that when a mostly African-American advisory committee began suggesting that the historical site should tackle current issues like white privilege, Young got scared.

Young, however, believes that the divergence arose when certain personnel began to see Cliveden as something other than a primarily historic site.

“There was a lot of energy many times in our meetings about whether this project was to heal the pain and suffering of enslaved people and can a historic site even do that,” Young said.

Young says the internal debate centered on what Cliveden could actually accomplish. “What we came to be clear on is that we’re a historical site; we can’t measure healing or repair, but we can measure understanding. So the cleavage between the ideas of racial healing and racial understanding was the biggest fork in the road.”

Ultimately, Young says, a choice had to be made. “We are not a social agency. We don’t have resources to heal crimes committed by generations long ago. It’s important not to impose a 21st century morality on the 18th century.”

To that end, Young says he wants Cliveden to become a place where they can learn about American history, the good and the bad, and have civil and productive discussions.

“I have this crazy idea that our site’s history can bring people together, even if they’re disagreeing.”

A preview of the exhibit is open during Cliveden’s normal touring hours, Thursday through Sunday from 12-4 p.m.

Editor’s note: While writing this story, William Black discovered his own ancestral connection to Benjamin Chew.

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