Keeping you current

Philadelphia Will Memorialize Dinah, an Enslaved Woman Who Saved the City’s Historic Stenton House in 1777

Currently in the works, the new monument will honor her contributions and legacy with a contemplative space

The Stenton House, circa 1865 to 1914 (Frank Cousins Collection of Glass Plate Negatives / Courtesy of Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum)
smithsonianmag.com

Philadelphia’s Stenton House—a historic landmark built in the early 18th century for colonial statesman James Logan—wouldn’t be standing today if not for the heroic efforts of Dinah, one of the many African American women once enslaved by the property’s owners.

Freed from slavery in 1776, just months before the Declaration of Independence was signed, Dinah took a paid job as a housekeeper at Stenton. The following fall, she encountered two British soldiers who told her that they intended to set the building ablaze. After the pair retreated to the adjacent barn to gather kindling, Dinah alerted a British officer who had stopped by the residence in search of deserters to the would-be arsonists’ presence. The soldiers were promptly arrested.

Though various accounts of the incident credit Dinah with saving the Logans’ property, as well as the family’s vast collection of manuscripts, several omit her name, referring to her only as an “old Negroe servant.” The descriptors that adorned a bronze plaque at Stenton, installed in 1912 to honor Dinah’s contribution, also memorialized her poorly, referring to her as a “faithful colored caretaker.” The stone marker was later removed during renovations. (As of May 1, Dinah remains conspicuously absent from the Wikipedia entry on Stenton.)

Now, centuries after her still-largely anonymous act of bravery, Dinah is finally getting her due, reports Karen Chernick for Atlas Obscura. In collaboration with Germantown-based artist Karyn Olivier, curators at the Stenton House—which has since been converted into a museum—plan to install a proper commemoration of Dinah on its grounds.

Imagined as a contemplative space, the monument will feature a fountain encircled by two benches. Two engraved limestone pillars will prompt viewers with questions, some of which are designed to be asked of Dinah herself: Where were you born? How did you get here? What was your greatest sorrow? How did freedom feel?

Intended to celebrate Dinah while highlighting the enigmas that still surround her, the monument—tentatively scheduled for unveiling in September—will both inform and challenge its visitors.

“I’m interested in monuments that confound us,” Olivier tells Atlas Obscura. “How do I get away from monuments which treat history like a period at the end of a sentence? … [W]e all know history has to be written in pencil.”

Olivier, who heads the sculpture program at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art and Architecture, dreamed up her design by way of the Dinah Memorial Project, a 2018 initiative that invited community members to submit proposals for a monument, reported Stephan Salisbury for the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time.

The goal of the project was to honor Dinah—not just for her service to Stenton, but for her personhood and the immense struggles she endured as an enslaved individual, Kaelyn Barr, director of education at the Stenton House Museum & Gardens, tells Atlas Obscura.

“It’s messy and complicated,” she adds, “and we are really hoping to do her entire story justice.”

Dinah certainly deserves a moniker more fitting than “faithful servant,” Stenton’s executive director, Dennis Pickeral, told the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Valerie Russ last year.

As the monument veers closer to completion, what little was recorded of Dinah’s life will continue to be discussed at Stenton. Enslaved as a child in Philadelphia, Dinah was brought to the estate decades later, when one Hannah Emlen married James Logan’s son William. The move separated Dinah from her husband, though he was later purchased by the Logans. According to records cited by Atlas Obscura, Dinah had a daughter, Bess, and a grandson, Cyrus, who also lived at Stenton. But her story is full of holes: Among the details lost include her birthday, her birthplace and even her last name.

Though most of Dinah’s life remains a mystery, those who now run Stenton House hope visitors will take the new monument as an opportunity to ponder her fully. Each question posed by Olivier’s pillars had an answer—and perhaps by pondering them, Dinah’s modern audience can help write her history back onto Stenton’s grounds.

“She was a person, she had a family,” Pickeral told the Philadelphia Inquirer in September. “How do we think of her as a human being?”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark magazine, Popular Science and more. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University, and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

Read more from this author |
Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus