By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – The story of Africans in America is a diverse one. Although most people of African descent in America were slaves prior to the Civil War, in recent years, stories of free, prosperous Black people have slowly begun to bubble to the surface.
“Slavery is most of our story,” say Denise Dennis, founder and president of the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust based in Philadelphia. “But we also have to know the story of those who were free and their accomplishments.”
Dennis is the part of the seventh generation of the Perkins-Dennis family. She says her great-great-great-great grandfather Prince Perkins (1750 – 1839) likely fought in the Revolutionary War. Since many slaves were freed as a reward for their service and it is believed he was set free and moved to Pennsylvania from Connecticut. She says he reportedly earned monies in the war, which he used to purchase land in what is now Susquehanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania.
“The area was called the “howling wilderness” because at night, you could hear the wolves howling,” says Dennis.
Dennis says Perkins and her great-great-great-great grandmother Judith settled the farm in 1793 and lived as subsistence farmers, clearing the land of trees to make a living. She says the Perkins family was one of only 10 families– and the only African Americans– to build a home in the Endless Mountains. Dennis says their presence is well documented, with the family mentioned in diaries of prominent people of area and in history books.
“They weren’t only there- they were a part of the community,” she says. “They weren’t African Americans hiding in the hillside.”
Dennis says, in 1804, Prince and Judith Perkins’ granddaughter Angeline, married Henry Dennis of Massachusetts who used his money to add 100 acres to the farm. Eight-generations later, the Dennis Farm is 153-acres and is still owned by the family trust.
“Only two percent of African Americans were in New England and where the farm is there was less than one-half percent of Black Americans as late as 1830,” says Dennis, noting the rarity of her family’s legacy. “When I see how few were landowners and how few were able to pass their land on, I realize I am very fortunate.”
Today, the Dennis family hopes to share their legacy with the world by building a museum and education center on the farm property, as well as raising awareness through partnerships with educational institutions. The Trust gave a presentation earlier this week at the African American Museum of Philadelphia before an audience of politicians and oil executives. Dennis and her family told the story of their legacy and their recent connection to Marcellus Shale.
“We have what is known as a non-surface access lease, so they can no surface access to the farm,” says Dennis of their agreement with Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation. “But they can come in from deep under the earth. But there will be no footprint on top of it.”
Dennis says the decision to engage in the Marcellus Shale trade seems controversial, but it was a practical decision for the farm. She says the monies earned will help the Trust share the legacy of the Dennis family, as free black people living in America, making the farm relevant after 220 years.
“I can’t tell you how many young African Americans have said to me, ‘I had to hear this I never knew that we were free before the Civil War, I never knew that we were landowners,'” says Dennis. “[This] story turns upside down some of our notions [about Blacks in America].”
As for how she sees herself, Dennis says she stands not just on the shoulders of her ancestors, but also on the stone walls they built in the Endless Mountains.
“And I can see over the horizon,” she says smiling. “I have a strong foundation.”
Listen to interview: