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Slaves in the Suburbs


Historians don’t have to dig far to uncover evidence of slavery in the Main Line. Tangible remnants are all around us. This summer, archaeologists working in Center City uncovered remnants of a subterranean tunnel through which George Washington’s slaves once passed in what’s now being described as the president’s house. To uncover such evidence on the Main Line, no digging is required. Its remnants are everywhere. The Dutch brought the first African slaves when they settled here in the 1630s. Quaker settlers expanded on the practice and were initially among the most avid slave traders and purchasers. William Penn owned two slaves, considering them a more practical investment than indentured servants, who would have to be replaced every few years. Benjamin Franklin owned a female slave, whom he advertised and sold in 1730.

Before about 1725, the white population of Pennsylvania was tiny, consisting mostly of individual landowners trying to cultivate farms with their own hands. Slaves represented virtually the only additional source of labor. I Many of our ancient houses—and the fields on which newer homes sit—were touched by slave labor. In 1770, the total number of slaves in Delaware and Chester counties was 552. By the end of the Revolutionary War, the total was 493. And even after the institution was virtually extinct, the region was dotted with mills that processed slave-grown Southern sugar and cotton. I A few local sites with connections to slavery are described and illustrated here. There are thousands more.


Willcox Homestead, Concord
Among Catholics, the Willcox Homestead (pictured above) is known as the place where the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia was founded. Beginning in 1729, Jesuits rode north on horseback from Maryland—where they worked in secret—to perform Mass for worshippers in the home of paper-maker Thomas Willcox (pictured above). After determining that Quaker authorities meant what they said about religious liberty, Catholics established Old St. Joseph’s on Willings Alley in Philadelphia in 1733. But the Willcox home is still known as St. Mary’s Chapel. Willcox’s Ivy Mills—whose ruins face the mansion across Polecat Road—was run by slaves. Making paper was hard work. Pickers gathered rags, which other workers beat to shreds with hammers before adding water to make a pulp. A wooden frame covered with screening was dipped into the mixture and lifted out covered with a thin layer of pulp. After it dried, this rough paper was polished and cut to size. During the Revolution, Ivy Mills—the nation’s second-oldest paper mill, after that of David Rittenhouse in Philadelphia—supplied paper for the Continental currency, the same stuff inflation made “not worth a Continental.”

After Willcox’s death, his son, Mark, registered with the county seven slaves he’d inherited along with the mill: “a Negro man, Prince, 56; a Negro man, Caesar, 25; a Negro woman, Pegg, 30; a Negro boy, Luke, 8; a Negro boy, Tim, 8; a Negro girl, Suck, aged 3; (and) a Negro girl, Luce, aged 14 years”—all slaves for life. Registration was required by Pennsylvania’s 1780 gradual-abolition law, which exempted existing slaves.

But the best evidence of slavery at Ivy Mills is the 18th-century “slave house,” which stands a few yards from the main home. The two-story stone structure is similar to one found at Robert E. Lee’s birthplace, Stratford Hall, in Virginia. “House slaves typically would’ve lived in proximity to the house,” says descendant Mark Willcox, the current owner. “Nobody in the family would’ve lived out there.”

And there is the burial ground (pictured opposite), filled with carefully placed fieldstones, none of which mark the grave of a Willcox. The cemetery was visited as recently as 2006 by Beulah Derry, an African-American neighbor who claimed to be a descendant of Willcox slaves and treated the house as her second home. “I once walked in and she was upstairs,” says Willcox, describing how Derry mimicked a faux-darkie accent. “She called down to me, ‘Are you lookin’ for the massah? He not here. He outside.’”

Derry died earlier this year.



McDowell House and Mill, Upper Oxford
“Liberty” is a concept that people interpret in different ways. During the Revolution, James McDowell raised a company of militia and taught it to march in front of his house in Chester County. He then led the 4th Battalion of Chester County Associators at the Continental Army’s battles on Long Island and at Trenton. And when the war was won, McDowell came home to his family and his slaves.

McDowell ran a store out of this house (pictured above), but his main business was the labor-intensive job of milling. Bags of grain were carried to the top of the mill (pictured opposite) and poured into bins, which fed into moving grindstones. Then the flour had to be re-bagged. Building and machinery required maintenance. McDowell would’ve needed help.

Despite Pennsylvania’s 1780 gradual-abolition law, McDowell controlled the lives of at least nine slaves. The law grandfathered the status of existing slaves and allowed owners to hold onto their offspring until they were 21. If the children were signed to apprenticeships, they could be held until age 28. The time in those apprenticeships could be sold, which meant that apprenticed blacks could be traded from one master to another in a system that looked a lot like slavery.

In 1789, McDowell registered with the county three servants—a boy, Natt, 4, and two girls, Poll and Sib, 6 and 8 respectively. In 1807, a county assessment of his property included three slaves—Thomas, 65; Cloe, 60; and Reachel, 35. And when McDowell died, his wife inherited the unexpired time of another girl, Charlotte; the unexpired time—about 10 years—of a boy was sold. Thomas, Cloe and Reachel were freed and given $30 a piece.

The ninth slave was George Crisfield who, during the War of 1812, took down and sharpened his master’s old sword from the Revolution. McDowell, 70, then strapped it on and rode down to Maryland, where a rifle company stationed to resist British invasion cheered his declaration that he was ready to fight again for liberty.



Llewellyn Homestead, Gladwyne
Assume that it’s 1703 and your father has given you a square mile of land in Lower Merion. A portion—which had been farmed by the Indians—is flat and open. But most is hilly, rocky and covered with trees. Free labor is scarce because other immigrants are working their own farms. Oh, and you have five daughters and no sons.

How do you make a go of it?

In early 18th-century Pennsylvania, the solution was to buy slaves. There was plenty of precedent. Under Dutch rule, African slaves had worked here as early as 1639. So, that’s what Morris Llewellyn did.

Llewellyn was a Quaker. But in that era, most Friends accepted slavery as part of the natural order. So it wasn’t unusual that his would include a “Negro man (worth) 50 pounds; Negro woman, 35 pounds; Negro child, 15 pounds.” And because Llewellyn had already distributed portions of his estate to his married children before his death, it’s possible that he had previously owned additional slaves. Historical accounts indicate that Llewellyn built the oldest part of this stone house—named Inspiration Farm and Stonehearth by later owners—in 1716. But Llewellyn was a farmer, not a stonemason. So he probably didn’t do it alone.



Pont Reading, Haverford
Charles Humphreys is remembered as one of four Pennsylvania members of the Continental Congress who voted against the Declaration of Independence. As a Quaker, according to his Congressional biography, he opposed the war he knew it would bring. But the story is not entirely true. Humphreys may have had scruples about war, but he hadn’t been a Quaker since 1751, when local Friends expelled him for cohabiting with his fiancée, Margaret Parry.

Nor, apparently, did Humphreys share Quaker scruples about slavery. Starting with a 1696 statement of “caution” about participating in the slave trade, Philadelphia Quakers had gradually tightened their rules about the institution. Finally, in 1776, they ruled that Quaker slaveholders who “continue to reject the advice of their brethren” to free their slaves should be expelled.

But Humphreys and his siblings weren’t having any of it. In addition to Pont Reading—the family estate on Haverford Avenue—and a mill, the Humphreys had inherited eight slaves, whom they intended to keep. After Pennsylvania passed its gradual-abolition law in 1780, they were careful to stay on the right side of its loopholes, as the law allowed owners to hold onto existing slaves who were registered with the county.

So Humphreys got them registered: “Charles Humphreys, of Haverford, Miller; his sister, Elizabeth Humphreys, and the estate of Rebecca Humphreys, deceased, record a Negro woman, Nancy, 70; a Negro man, Cezar, 36; a Negro man, Tone, 34; a Negro woman, Nancy, 44; a mulatto woman, Judy, 25; a mulatto girl, Alice, 10; a mulatto boy, Tommey, 8; and a mulatto female child, Fanny, 13 months, all slaves for life.”



Harriton House, Bryn Mawr
Colonial Pennsylvania wasn’t really plantation country. Farms were smaller than in the South and were usually worked by members of the family. But there were exceptions.

One was Harriton, the 700-acre farm bought in 1719 by Richard Harrison, which may have been the northernmost tobacco plantation in the 13 colonies operated on a slave economy. Harrison, a Quaker, had no qualms at all about slavery. According to one local historian, Harrison’s ambition was to have a full 100 slaves working the plantation. But he was continually frustrated when, as the total got close, some uncooperative slave would die. (The current director of Harriton House dismisses the story as myth.)

Harriton House later became the property of Charles Thomson, secretary to the Continental Congress, who married Harrison’s daughter. Decorative tobacco is still grown at Harriton in memory of the Harrison era. The property now belongs to Lower Merion Township and is rented for events.

Harrison’s house slaves were buried with their white owners in a small area (pictured) surrounded by a stone wall. Field slaves were buried in the woods, on a site now occupied by the Beaumont retirement community.



Idlewild Preserve, Gladwyne
Donated to the Natural Lands Trust in 1990, the preserve at 617 Williamson Road in Lower Merion could be seen as a creation of slave labor. The 21-acre property is the largest intact remnant of the 400-acre farm of Quaker settler Robert Lloyd.

Lloyd’s purchase of the farm in 1698 was a life-changing event—and not for him alone. Owning a farm likely convinced neighbors Reese and Hannah Jones that their 17-year-old daughter, Lowry, would be in good hands. The couple was married that same year and, in 1699, would have the first of eight children. The future of Lloyd and his family depended on making the farm a success.

And that is why Idlewild also changed the lives of two indentured servants and one slave—“Negro Jo”—listed in Lloyd’s 1714 will. There is no record indicating when those servants came to the farm, but Lloyd’s eldest son, David, was only 7 years old when his father died. So Lloyd probably needed laborers as early as 1700 when he built—likely with “help”—the original section of this house. Though vastly expanded, the home first consisted of just one room with a loft or attic. Perhaps everyone lived there together.



Pyle Homestead, Bethel
About 1698, Robert Pyle had a dream. In his sleep, the Quaker farmer—who lived in a brick house on this now rapidly developing corner of Foulk and Bethel roads (pictured above)—imagined himself on a road, carrying a black iron pot. The pot held something valuable, but Pyle wasn’t sure what.

Walking along, Pyle came to “a great ladder” planted upright in the ground and stretching up into the sky. The ladder, he realized, represented the route to Heaven and, as such, required him to choose between climbing it and holding onto the black pot. “I steps down and laid the pot at the foot of the ladder,” Pyle wrote in an account of his dream, “and said them that will take it might, for I found work enough for both hands to take hold of this ladder.”

Slavery had been on Pyle’s mind. An Englishman who’d arrived with William Penn about 1682, Pyle and his wife had eight children and a 150-acre farm to work under primitive conditions. The work was constant and help was scarce. “Theyr was sum inclination upon my mind to buy a Negro, or Negroes, by reason of my English servants being out of their times and having a great familie of small children,” wrote Pyle. “[They] might bee an help unto mee being for a tearm of life, that I and my children have have more liberty.”

But he had second thoughts. Perhaps he’d heard of the anti-slavery protest in Germantown 10 years earlier. His concerns were similar. What would happen, he asked, if the slaves rebelled? Local Quakers would need a militia to suppress a rebellion, and Quakers didn’t do that sort of thing. Did the slave trade actually encourage African wars in order to produce captives? And—having never wanted for food or clothing—was he just being selfish in wanting more? “Theyrwith be content,” concluded Pyle, quoting Paul (Philippians 4:10-23).

Pyle never bought a slave.



Waynesborough, Paoli
Waynesborough is a memorial to Revolutionary War Gen. “Mad Anthony” Wayne. To the man himself, the 380-acre farm and mansion inherited from his father was something far more useful: collateral. In 1786, he mortgaged the estate to buy slaves.

After the Revolution, the general was both a military and financial success. Despite his defeat at Paoli, he’d beaten British troops in numerous campaigns. At home, his wife, Polly, managed Waynesborough profitably. Wayne owned rental houses in Philadelphia, investment property in Nova Scotia and, as a veteran, was entitled to a military bonus redeemable for still more land. But the general was always a questing sort. He wasn’t satisfied.

Wayne also owned Richmond, an 847-acre rice plantation near Savannah awarded him by the state of Georgia in 1782 for driving out British troops. Confiscated from a Loyalist, the estate was located in a prime rice-growing region and, in full operation, could make Wayne very rich. But while it included a mansion and numerous outbuildings, Richmond included no laborers. Wayne would have to provide those on his own.

By giving the deed to his Easttown property to lenders, Wayne was able to buy 47 slaves worth 3,300 English pounds from a broker in Charlestown, S.C. But Richmond turned out to be in worse shape than Wayne had expected. And by the time the slaves and supplies got there to begin work, it was too late in the season to plant. With that disappointing start, the general’s lenders became increasingly nervous and demanded payment of past-due bills. When the Chester County sheriff threatened to seize Waynesborough and sell it at auction, Wayne gave up and sold Richmond for a pittance.

The slaves were repossessed.

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