Dinah, the enslaved woman who saved Philadelphia’s historic Stenton House from burning by the British

Mildred Europa Taylor January 31, 2022
Stenton House in Philadelphia. PUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGE

The Stenton House in Philadelphia is a historic landmark built in the 18th century for James Logan, who was a Philadelphia mayor, an acting governor, and chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Quaker leader was also a slaveholder. His colonial-era mansion Stenton would have been in ruins today but for the bravery of Dinah, an enslaved woman who lived and worked at Stenton in the 18th century.

No one knows exactly when Dinah was born though some say it was in the late 1720s. It is believed that she was owned by Hannah Emlen Logan, wife of James Logan’s son William Logan, who became proprietor of Stenton. Dinah lived with the Logan family at a time when the Quakers were increasingly agitating against slavery.

The Logans, who were one of Philadelphia’s great founding Quaker families, freed Dinah in 1776 after they had also helped her to reunite with her husband by buying his freedom from another family in 1757. Despite gaining her freedom, Dinah continued to work at Stenton with the Logans. She took a paid job as a housekeeper there and family papers record in August 1777 that “Negro Dinah was paid her wage in full — [12 pounds],” according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

During the Battle of Germantown in 1777, which played an important role in the outcome of the Revolutionary War, Dinah would save the historic Stenton house from being destroyed.

History says that British troops that year torched 17 stately houses between Philadelphia and Germantown in retaliation for American attacks at the Battle of Germantown. Stenton became one of the homes targeted. In November 1777, Dinah was alone at Stenton when two British soldiers banged on the door and told her the mansion would be burned. The soldiers then went to the barn to gather straw for the blaze.

A small detachment of British troops subsequently stopped by the mansion and asked Dinah if she had seen any deserters. She quickly told the detachment about the arsonists in the barn, who were then arrested. Dinah had saved Stenton and its vast collection of manuscripts, which eventually became the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Although several accounts have repeated her story, they omit her name, referring to her only as an “old Negroe servant.” A bronze plaque at Stenton, installed in 1912 to honor her contribution, also referred to her as a “faithful colored caretaker.” The plaque was later removed during renovations.

In 2020, it was announced that a new memorial will honor Dinah in a different way. Curators at Stenton House, which has since been converted into a museum, disclosed that they were working with Germantown-based artist Karyn Olivier to install an appropriate monument of Dinah on its grounds.

“We don’t want ‘faithful servant’ as the only thing people identify Dinah as,” Dennis Pickeral, executive director at Stenton, told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2019. “She was a person, she had a family. How do we think of her as a human being?”

The idea to properly commemorate Dinah was birthed in 2017 when the Association for Public Arts offered to relocate to Stenton a cast-bronze memorial to James Logan that had been stored away in the basement of the Philadelphia Museum of Art for nearly 50 years.

“We thought if we are going to bring the Logan memorial here, it was only right that we think about Dinah’s presence in this landscape,” Pickeral said. “People hear ‘Quakers’ and think that they were always abolitionists, but Quakers did own slaves. We decided if we are going to tell the Stenton story, we have to tell the whole story.”

As part of the project to give Dinah a proper monument, community members were asked to submit proposals for the monument. “I’m interested in monuments that confound us,” Olivier told 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 said.

“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?” Smithsonian Magazine wrote recently.

It remains unknown exactly when Dinah died although sources say she was likely buried under an old pine tree southeast of the Stenton House. Her last name is also not known but what is known is that she had a daughter, Bess, and a grandson, Cyrus, who also lived at Stenton.

Dinah remains a key figure in the life of not only the Logans but also of Stenton, and she really deserves to be commemorated.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: January 31, 2022


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