Secret Philly

William Penn kept enslaved people. These are some of their names.

An important piece of Pennsylvania’s founder’s legacy.

A historical reenactment of two married people, Jack and Parthenia, kept on Penn's estate

A historical reenactment of two married people, Jack and Parthenia, kept on Penn's estate

Cruz Dann Productions, 'People Not Property'
michaelawinberg-square-crop-feb2018

Philadelphia and Pennsylvania founder William Penn’s legacy is widely known as one of religious tolerance and willingness to negotiate with Indigenous people. But in some ways, the namesake of this very news site was not all that different from other rich, white men of his time.

Penn, though a pacifist Quaker, kept several Black enslaved people during his time overseeing his colony — even as the practice grew increasingly unpopular among Pennsylvanians.

The records that exist aren’t totally clear, but it seems as if Penn enslaved roughly 12 people at his Pennsbury Manor estate, which was located in what is now the Philly suburbs. These people were purchased off the first slave ship known to have arrived in Philadelphia, and were of African and Carribean descent.

We only know a few of their names, but we know that like many people, they worshipped, married for love, and gave birth to children. Some died on Penn’s estate.

“He certainly owned enslaved people,” said Douglas Miller, director at Pennsbury Manor, which is now a museum. “Some were given freedom, and some were not. Frustratingly, he doesn’t say why.”

There’s a movement to reexamine American history — the way it’s written, by whom, and what it leaves out. The New York Times’ 1619 Project dove deep into the innumerable ways slavery left a permanent impact on the United States. The issue became part of the nationwide conversation after the protests that followed the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as the country collectively questioned oft-lionized historical figures.

“Most Founding Fathers, you’ll find, because they were of wealth and privilege, they did own enslaved people,” said museum director Miller. “It’s healthy and right to bring that to the forefront.”

Philly Quakers protested slavery early, then took another half century to officially denounce it

In 1684, a massive cargo ship called Isabella docked on the shores of Philadelphia and unloaded 150 Black people destined for enslavement by wealthy, white property owners.

Slavery was not a popular practice in the colonial city — though it was certainly present. Records show that from 1682 through 1705, about 7% of Philadelphia families had enslaved people.

Penn was among them. He said he found African slaves “more dependable” than indentured servants at his Morrisville, Pennsylvania residence.

Records are sparse, but they seem to indicate Penn see-sawed back and forth between cruelty and random acts of kindness.

He offered to integrate Quaker meetings with both Black and Indigenous people, but he only volunteered to help facilitate those with Indigenous people. At one time, he altered his will to leave 100 acres of his entire estate to one of his favorite slaves, named Sam, but by the time he died he had changed it back. He was on board with recognizing marriages among slaves, but when one of his slave’s wives was sold to Barbados, they were only allowed to meet one last time if they also washed the Penn family’s laundry. Some people he set free; others died in his captivity.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvanians started to question whether the institution was acceptable.

In 1688, Quakers organized The Germantown Protest, the first movement against slavery in the colonies — but it would be another 50 years until Quakers unanimously agreed that slavery was wrong.

Thanks to a grant, Penn’s museum showcases some stories of people enslaved there

Pennsbury Manor got a grant in the 1990s to focus on the untold stories of the site, Miller said. and dug into Penn’s legacy as a slave owner.

After digging into records — Penn’s correspondence, mostly — director Miller learned that the second floor of the house, above the kitchen, was reserved as slave quarters. He learned about an enslaved man named Jack, who was tragically separated from his wife Parthenia when she was sold to Barbados. (Penn’s wife, Hannah, was the one who forced them to do the family’s laundry on their final meeting.)

Miller learned some of the enslaved people’s names — Sam, Sue, Yaff, Jack and Peter — and read about others who remained anonymous.

Since then, he’s added enslaved people to the orientation video guests see upon entering Pennsbury Manor. He had the word “slavery” written across the wall in what used to be the slaves’ quarters as a reminder, and designed other new exhibits highlighting the horrific practice.

Who were the people William Penn kept as enslaved?

The lasting records of enslaved people at Pennsbury Manor are few and far between — and they’re tempered by the fact that they were kept by slave owners, not the people themselves.

Still, we have a little bit information about some of the people enslaved by the commonwealth’s namesake.

Here are their abridged stories, as much as we currently know them.

Yaff

Yaff, it seems, was among Penn’s favorite people enslaved at his estate. After four years of service, Penn wrote to colonial scholar James Logan — who went on to become Philly’s 14th mayor — in 1703, he intended to set Yaff free and pay for his passage to England if he’d like to go there. Penn affectionately called him “an able planter, & good Husbandman.”

In 1705, records show that Penn paid 8 shillings to buy Yaff a new shirt.

Sam and Sue

Penn seemed to recognize the marriage between Sam and Sue, two enslaved people on his estate. He looked favorably upon them, writing to James Logan in 1701 that he intended to leave Sam 100 acres of his land, “to be his Childrens after he & wife are dead, forever.”

By the time Penn died, his will had been changed, so that gift never materialized.

It appears that Penn might have sold Sam to James Logan when Penn left the colonies for England. Logan wrote to Hannah Callowhill Penn in 1721 that Sam had died.

Speaking of Callowhill Penn, she showed Sue a bit of compassion in a 1720 letter to Logan: “I would not have poor Sue sold to one that would use her hardly nor if possible have the children separated from her.”

Peter

All we know of Peter, sadly, is that he worked in Penn’s garden and died under his ownership before 1702.

Jack

Jack’s story is of love and loss. He’s the enslaved man whose wife, Parthenia, was sold by her Philadelphia family to Barbados. Jack requested that Callowhill Penn let him see his wife one last time before she left the colonies.

Hannah’s response, found in a 1700 letter to James Logan, was callous and centered around labor [all sic]:

The Boson bring Jack news that his wife Partenia is sold to barbadoes wch makes him desire to return, but I am loath to Let him go because our washing aproache{e}s but I should be glad to have aright information, & how long twill be ere she goes; if there were time for it, and I were fully Satisfied of her honesty, I should be willing to have her up by the boat, to help about washing, but I am in a little doubt concerning her, having lost more {wearing} linnin, since in that town than in all the years of my life before   I cannot charge her wth it but desire thoult send for betty Webb, & press her to give her inward thoughts about her & act accordingly.

Chevalier

Knowledge of Chevalier, too, is limited. Penn’s correspondence basically only shows that he was unsure if this man was captured by Spaniards from his estate in 1686. If Chevalier had been captured, “it is a great loss,” Penn wrote to Phineas Pemberton. “I would not have lost him for 50 lb sterl.”

It’s likely he wasn’t captured after all, since a letter from Logan to Callowhill Penn confirms Chevalier was set free prior to 1721.

Susannah Warder

Born on Penn’s estate in March 1701, Susannah Warder was the daughter of Sam and Sue.

Warder was one of Penn’s house servants. Her obituary described her as “tall and streight in her person, graceful in all her deportments, agreeable in her manners, and temperate in her speech and mode of living.” Apparently she had great sight and memory, although she started to lose her hearing as she aged.

After she was too old to work, the Penn family showed her some kindness, leaving her an annual sum of money to support herself.

Virgil Warder

Virgil was Susannah’s husband. Other than that, all we know of him is that a jacket and shirt were purchased for him in 1734.

Where to learn more

Pennsbury Manor is still temporarily closed due to coronavirus. Meantime, you can visit their website to learn more about Penn’s legacy and his interactions with workers, indentured servants, enslaved Black people and Indigenous people.

Pennsylvania abolished slavery in 1780 — almost 100 years before the rest of the country. Quakers became active in the nationwide movement for abolition. You can dig deeper into that history using the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission archives.

Want some more? Explore other Secret Philly stories.

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