The Montiers: An American Story

Produced by Karen Smyles

I first became aware of the Montier family history back in 2009 when the portraits of Hiram and Elizabeth Montier came to The Philadelphia Museum of Art. The paintings were placed on loan from Mr. and Mrs. William Pickens, III, of Sag Harbor, NY. William Pickens, a Montier descendant, acquired the paintings after they were found under the bed of a family member who passed away.

Barack Obama, a biracial man, had just become President of The United States. Pickens believed the President’s story had significant ties to the interracial history of his own family. He contacted the museum, and they confirmed that portraits of African American sitters from 1841 in Philadelphia were a significant find.

But the paintings are just one part of this family’s rich history. The Montiers are descendants of Philadelphia’s first mayor, Humphrey Morrey, appointed by William Penn in 1691. This in itself would place them prominently in Philadelphia’s history. But what’s more remarkable is that the Montiers are African-American. This is not just a piece of Philadelphia history; it’s an American story.

Like Penn, Humphrey Morrey was from England and a Quaker. He was a merchant and served a 10-year term as mayor. In 1682, he was among the 15 original founders of Cheltenham Township, located just outside of Philadelphia, and named after their former home in Cheltenham, England. While Quakers were among the first to later condemn slavery in this country, many did own slaves when they first arrived in America. Morrey’s was a slaveholding family. This is where the Montier story begins.

Cremona Satterthwaite was a servant in the Morrey household. After Humphrey Morrey’s death, his son Richard inherited his property. Not long after, Richard freed the family’s enslaved people and Cremona remained a servant in the household. Richard fell in love with Cremona and they had 5 children between 1735–1745. Although they couldn’t legally marry, they did live together as man and wife, and were known and accepted as such throughout their community.

Richard Morrey died in 1753 and left Cremona 198 acres of land in the Edgehill section of Glenside, Cheltenham Township. At that time, it was unheard-of for an African-American woman to own land. The original 2-story barn structure built by Richard and Cremona’s youngest daughter, known as Cremona, Jr. and her husband, John Montier, still stands on part of the original property on Limekiln Pike. They also built a more prominent home that still stands in front of the barn structure. Both homes were built in the late 1700’s, an unprecendented occurrence: African Americans owning homes in that time period.

Richard and Cremona’s later descendants, Elizabeth and Hiram Montier, lived very comfortably. Hiram was a boot maker with a successful business in Center City Philadelphia. Many other family members went on to make notable accomplishments. Elizabeth Montier married Cyrus Bustill, an original member of The Free African Society, who also helped found St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Later descendants include Paul Robeson, the famous singer, actor and civil rights activist.

The history of The Morrey/Montier family is important in so many ways. This is a story of people of different races, backgrounds and religions, who came together as a family and prospered, from the Colonial era on. The best thing is that it started right here in our backyard.

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