Art & Design

Dinah Memorial at Stenton to be Unveiled

March 28, 2024 | by Amy Cohen

Monuments can be tricky. Although their purpose is to commemorate a historical figure or event for posterity, our view of history is not static. The past stays the same, but our present interpretation of the past is ever changing. New information and, more significantly, new social mores render historical narratives that reflect the time in which they are created rather than the period in which events transpired.

Landscape architect Claudia Levy’s sketch following artist Karyn Olivier’s conceptual design for Right Here, a new monument at Stenton dedicated to Dinah. It is the first memorial in the city to honor a formerly enslaved Black Philadelphia woman. | Image courtesy of Stenton Museum

Thus, we end up with large public memorials to people who were once generally viewed as heroes who are now seen by many as villains like the Frank Rizzo statue at the Municipal Services Building that was removed in 2020 and the Christopher Columbus Statue at Marconi Plaza that was unboxed in 2022 after being covered for two year following a series of violent confrontations during the George Floyd protests. We also have monuments to honorees who still seem worthy, but the forms and language seem out of date. A local example would be the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in which a large white female figure representing Justice dwarfs the six Black military men on the front of the statue, and four white female figures representing War, Peace, Liberty, and Plenty populate the rear of the monument. Sometimes controversy erupts about how a monument’s creator is chosen as occurred recently in the selection process for a statue of Harriet Tubman to be placed at City Hall.

Stenton, the Logan family country seat that has been operated as a house museum since the early 20th century, has confronted several monument-related challenges in recent years. Stenton’s staff, along with The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America (NSCDA/PA—the longtime stewards of Stenton), and residents of the surrounding neighborhoods have worked for years to create a new on-site memorial consistent with 21st century sensibilities and inclusive of neighbors’ input. The fruits of their collective labor will be unveiled at noon on Saturday, April 20 at a ceremony and celebration to which the public is invited.

James Logan: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Stenton, the 18th-century house museum in North Philadelphia, will celebrate Dinah’s legacy with a monument. She was once enslaved by William and Hannah Logan, the second generation owners of Stenton. A dedication and unveiling will take place on April 20. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Stenton was built in the 1720s as a country house for James Logan and his family. Logan came to Pennsylvania in 1699 to serve as provincial secretary for William Penn. As Pennsylvania developed, Logan became a powerful politician, serving as mayor of Philadelphia, chief justice of Pennsylvania, and acting governor of Pennsylvania. He was a scholar who had essays published in respected journals, and he owned the largest private book collection in North America. Logan often lent volumes to his close friend and protégé, Benjamin Franklin. He was also a naturalist and a mentor to John Bartram who created Bartram’s Garden in the 1720s. This impressive James Logan has been a key character in the Stenton narrative visitors have heard until recent decades.

Today’s visitors also learn that Logan’s fortune resulted from the rum trade, which depended on Caribbean sugar cultivated by enslaved workers. They are told that Stenton was a farm worked by a combination of enslaved, indentured, and paid labor. In other words, it was a plantation. Logan was also the chief architect of the Walking Purchase, a land swindle that cheated the Lenape out of a vast swath Bucks County territory.

The unseemly side of Logan’s biography became increasingly important to research and share in greater depth as historians, museum personnel, and site administrators were less willing to portray Founding Father types as figures to be left unquestioned upon their pedestals. Although Stenton has already discussed the challenging aspects of Logan’s biography on tours, these issues rose to the surface with heightened urgency when the site agreed to receive and steward a large bronze memorial to Logan in 2018.

An Inconvenient Gift

Logan Memorial, bronze, designed by Thomas Pym Cope for the Library Company of Philadelphia, 1939. Gift to Stenton from the Association for Public Art, 2018. | Photo courtesy of Stenton Museum

When Logan died in 1751, he donated his vast book collection to the citizens of Philadelphia. The Loganian Library did not survive the 18th century as an independent entity, and the books were transferred to the Library Company of Philadelphia, an institution founded by his friend Benjamin Franklin that continues to the present day. In 1939, a descendant designed a cast bronze memorial to Logan for the Library Company’s Ridgway Branch on South Broad Street, which is currently home to the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. It sat on the steps there until 1969 when the Library Company moved to its current Locust Street location. The monument was stored in the basement of the Philadelphia Museum of Art until it was given to Stenton by the Association for Public Art in 2018.

The infamous Unite the Right rally had taken place in Charlottesville in August 2017, and readers may recall that the intention to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was the impetus for this gathering of white supremacist groups. Thus, receiving a bronze tribute to an enslaver, who had also cheated the Lenape on a grand scale, in 2018 was problematic to say the least. Bringing the memorial to Stenton, however, offered an opportunity preserve an object with an associated Logan history and to participate in the larger national discussion about monuments.

A Further Challenge

Dinah’s manumission document from 1776 indicates that she requested freedom from enslavement. | Image courtesy of Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections

With the installation of the Logan memorial, staff at Stenton, along with members of NSCDA/PA, sought a fresh way to commemorate Dinah, a formerly enslaved woman who is credited with saving Stenton from would-be British arsonists. Dinah came to the Logan family as Hannah Emlen’s dower property when she married Logan’s son William in 1740. In 1776, William and Hannah granted Dinah’s request for freedom, but she chose to stay on as a paid servant at Stenton, possibly to look after her grandson Cyrus, who was to remain enslaved until he turned 21.

During the Revolutionary War period, Logan family members died, were exiled, and were absent from Stenton for stretches of time. The estate served as headquarters for George Washington and, later, for British General William Howe. An 1821 account written by a member of the Logan family describes a series of events during the war involving an “old domestic.” Although Dinah’s name is never used in the original story, it became associated with her as years went by.

According to oral tradition, after the Battle of Germantown in October 1777, the house and grounds of Stenton were in Dinah’s care. Two British soldiers informed her that they were charged with burning houses in the area and intended to set Stenton alight. They told her to remove any items she wanted from the house and asked where they could find hay to serve as kindling. She pointed to the barn. In the meantime, a British officer in search of deserters galloped up the lane at Stenton. Dinah indicated that two deserters were hiding in the barn, and the hay-gathering soldiers were promptly arrested.

A 1912 plaque honoring DInah was then erected in Stenton Park by The Colonial Dames and the Site and Relic Society of Germantown. | Photo courtesy of Stenton Museum

In 1912, The National Society of the Colonial Dames in Pennsylvania, in partnership with the Site and Relic Society of Germantown and private subscribers, commissioned a plaque commemorating Dinah’s actions. It reads:

In memory of DINAH the Faithful Colored Caretaker of Stenton who by her quick thought and presence of mind saved the mansion from being burned by British Soldiers in the winter of 1777.

Initially placed in adjacent Stenton Park, the plaque was brought inside the grounds of Stenton historic site in the 1970s. It has spent recent decades hanging on an easel near the back door of the house. Although the sentiment of honoring the brave deeds of a formerly enslaved woman resonates in our current era, the dated language on the plaque rings as offensive to 21st century ears. The desire to commemorate Dinah in a monument more appropriate to our own time—in combination with the recent acquisition of the James Logan memorial–motivated Stenton’s administration to begin a community engagement process that would lead to creating a new memorial.

Inequality in Bronze

Crewmembers of General Masonry and Restoration, Inc constructing the Dinah memorial. | Photo courtesy of Stenton Museum

The efforts to honor Dinah anew and to place the Logan memorial and the Dinah plaque in conversation developed into an extensive community engagement process entitled “Inequality in Bronze.” Stenton staff and the NSCDA/PA have engaged in a multiyear effort to include Stenton’s African American neighbors in conceptualizing the form a new Dinah memorial would take. With funding from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, a series of facilitated gatherings determined which aspects of Dinah’s life and story should be emphasized and delineated criteria for choosing an artist and design. Karyn Olivier, a self-described Black, gay, Trinidadian resident of Germantown, and a prominent artist, was selected to develop her concept for creating a memorial space in the Stenton landscape.

Right Here, Olivier’s memorial to Dinah, includes two semicircular benches that face each other across a small reflecting basin. Tablets rise out of each bench featuring a woman’s silhouette–there are no photos or other documented likenesses of Dinah. Superimposed on one silhouette is a list of questions for Dinah (What was your full name? How did freedom feel? Did you ever wish you had let it burn?) The opposite panel has questions for the viewer (What is your name? Do you feel free? Would you have saved Stenton?). Significantly, the original 1912 plaque has been cleaned and restored and will be mounted on one of the tablets. The dated wording remains, but the existence of this earlier tribute becomes part of the current day memorial, a feature of Olivier’s design that many neighbors value.

The Logan memorial sits in proximity to Right Here. This intentional placement will encourage visitors to contemplate not just the history of James Logan, of Dinah, or of Stenton, but also to reflect on our shifting understanding of history and our common destiny as 21st century Philadelphians and Americans.


Stenton Museum reopens for drop-in tours on Tuesday, April 2. See the historic site’s website for more information: https://www.stenton.org/visit

On Thursday, April 4, Amy Cohen will give a talk about her new book, Local Black History in the Philadelphia Landscape: Deep Roots, Continuing Legacy, at Stenton Museum. Register for the event here: https://stenton.ticketleap.com/lunchandlearn-amy-cohen/

The unveiling of Right Here will take place on Saturday, April 20. RSVP here: https://stenton.ticketleap.com/dinah-memorial-unveiling/



Tags:    

About the Author

Amy Cohen is an educator, historian, and writer. Her forthcoming book "Black History in the Philadelphia Landscape: Deep Roots, Continuing Legacy" will be published by Temple University Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.