As 12-year-olds growing up near the Stenton House in Nicetown, Curtis A. McAllister and his friends rode their bicycles past the historic mansion in fear.
Large German shepherds ran loose inside the gates, and the older folks warned the kids: “If the dogs don’t get you, the ghosts will.”
For decades, African Americans in Nicetown and neighboring towns have felt a disconnect to the large brick house on North 18th Street, built in 1730 for James Logan, then colonial secretary to William Penn. Even people who lived on the same block, residents for 50 or 60 years, had never set foot inside the house, said Alvina Brown, a block captain and Democratic Party committee woman.
Yet on Saturday, longtime residents will be among the community ambassadors for the Dinah Memorial Project, an enterprise aimed at creating a way to retell for the 21st century the story of Dinah, a onetime enslaved housekeeper at Stenton known for saving the mansion from being burned by the British.
There, three artist finalists — Karyn Olivier, assistant professor and head of the sculpture program at Tyler School of Art and Architecture; La Vaughn Belle, an artist living in St. Croix, Virgin Islands; and Kenturah Davis, who works from Los Angeles, New Haven, Conn., and Accra, Ghana — will present proposals for a new monument to honor Dinah.
As the story goes, after the Battle of Germantown in December 1777, Dinah was alone at the house when two British soldiers arrived with torches. They had orders to burn the place, they told her, and went to the nearby barn looking for straw to start the fire.
In the meantime, a British patrol officer approached Dinah, saying he was searching for deserters. She told him about the first two soldiers, that they were hiding in the barn, and the men were soon carted away.
The story of Dinah using her wit to divert the arsonists was recorded in letters by family members of William Logan, James Logan’s son. But those letters, along with accounts in newspapers and books, describe her only as Dinah, without a last name. In some places, she’s only known as an “old Negroe servant,” without any name. At Stenton, a 1912 bronze plaque honoring Dinah praises her as the “faithful colored caretaker.”
The new memorial is intended to honor Dinah in a different way, said Dennis Pickeral, executive director at Stenton.
“We don’t want ‘faithful servant’ as the only thing people identify Dinah as,” Pickeral said. “She was a person, she had a family. How do we think of her as a human being?”
The impetus for the Dinah Project started in 2017, when the Association for Public Arts offered to relocate to Stenton a cast-bronze memorial to James Logan — a 9-foot piece that has been stored away in the basement of the Philadelphia Museum of Art for about 50 years noting all of the accomplishments of the Quaker leader. He was a Philadelphia mayor, an acting governor, a chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
But he also had been a slaveholder.
As Stenton made plans to accept the Logan memorial, staffers began talking about the controversies surrounding monuments of Confederate generals and the absence of monuments that noted contributions of enslaved Africans and African Americans.
“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.”
In March 2018, Stenton applied for a $300,000 grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. The two-year project, “Inequality in Bronze: Monumental Plantation Legacies,” was designed to bring in community ideas about how to tell Dinah’s story. From December through June, community forums were held.
Although administrators asked that artists not describe their proposals until their Saturday presentation, Belle talked about the architecture of Stenton, how she was struck by the similarities between the colonial great houses here and in the Caribbean, where she grew up.
But there are differences. In the Caribbean houses, she said, the “servitude was out in the open.” At Stenton, "the evidence of service was hidden in the architecture.” Narrow corridors and cabinets enabled servants to bring food to guests in a parlor without being seen.
These days, Brown, 59, the block captain, said she regularly visits Stenton just to sit in the garden. Now there are much closer ties between the community and the museum.
“This is my place of respite," she said. “As a caregiver all my life, this is how I take care of me. I sit in the garden. Outside the gate is a whole different world, it’s the city and the noise. But here it’s my place of tranquility.”
Artiss Harrison is the chair of the Stenton Park Advisory Council. The 54-year-old, having learned about Dinah only three years ago, now holds her close in his heart.
“As strongly as some people feel about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X," Harrison said, "that’s how I feel about Dinah.”