Black at Bryn Mawr and the Enid Cook ’31 Center at Bryn Mawr College

by Grace Pusey 

President Cassidy and students Grace Pusey, Khadijah Seay, and Danielle Cadet at the Cook Center dedication, August 31, 2015. Photo credit: Bryn Mawr College Communications.

Bryn Mawr College President Kim Cassidy and students Grace Pusey ’15, Khadijah Seay ’16, and Danielle Cadet  ’16 (August 31, 2015). Photo credit: Bryn Mawr College Communications.

At Fall Convocation on Monday, August 31, 2015, President Kim Cassidy announced that the residence hall and cultural center built to replace Perry House — the residence hall and cultural center that African American women fought for and won in 1972 (which later also housed members of Mujeres and BACaSO, campus affinity groups founded by and for Latina, African, and Caribbean students) — has been named the Enid Cook ’31 Center in honor of Enid Appo Cook, the first African American woman to graduate from Bryn Mawr College. After President Cassidy shared this news with an audience of students, staff, and faculty packed into Goodhart Hall, I joined Enid Cook ’31 Center co-presidents Khadijah Seay and Danielle Cadet (both Class of 2016) at the Center’s dedication. President Cassidy made a few remarks explaining why Bryn Mawr had chosen to name the Center after Enid Cook and acknowledged Khadijah and Danielle for their hard work and visionary leadership on the Relaunching Perry House Committee. She also thanked me for the essay I wrote on Enid Cook for the Black at Bryn Mawr project, which proved instrumental to the College’s decision to name the building in her honor.

When the festivities ended, I went home and wrote a heartfelt Facebook post about how meaningful the day had been to me. Monica emailed me the next morning to say that she had been moved by what I wrote and asked if I would feel comfortable blogging it, since we have used this space to toggle back and forth between historical research and reflections on the meaning of that research. I agreed; since then, I have been staring at a blank screen, trying to figure out how to repackage what I wrote then for the readers of this blog. What I shared with my friends on Facebook suddenly seemed embarrassingly sincere. Rather than revising my original post, however, I have decided to share it as it was written. It remains the most candid summary of my feelings about the experience, and I cannot think of a way to suppress the emotion behind it without minimizing how truly significant the dedication ceremony was to me. I wrote:  Continue reading

Early Bryn Mawr Black History, 1719-1824

Harriton House, Bryn Mawr, PA | Photo credit: Monica Mercado

Harriton House, Bryn Mawr, PA | Photo credit: Monica Mercado

by Grace Pusey

Unlike the projects that inspired Black at Bryn Mawr, including the Black and Blue walking tour at the University of North Carolina and student-led digital humanities projects on histories of slavery at Harvard, Brown, Princeton, and Yale, Emma and I assumed that Bryn Mawr had no ties to American slavery when we started our research five months ago. That all changed when we visited the local colonial cemetery and started asking questions about its unmarked graves. In our search for answers we learned that Richard Harrison, who built Harriton Family Cemetery in 1719, owned the northernmost tobacco plantation cultivated by slave labor in the American colonies prior to Independence. While most of the unmarked graves that sparked our curiosity did not belong to slaves, we learned that two graves were thought to belong to Harrison’s house slaves, and that there was a separate cemetery on Gulph Road where his field slaves were buried. We learned that the Vaux family, related matrilineally to the Harrisons and also buried in the graveyard, bequeathed part of Harrison’s 688-acre estate to the College, including the building that is now English House, and donated the mineral collection displayed in Park Science. Thus, our initial curiosity about rows of rocks yielded a surprising discovery: Bryn Mawr College likely benefitted handsomely from wealth founded on slave labor.

At the end of the spring semester, however, I still had questions about Harriton Family Cemetery. I was curious: The cemetery’s history obviously disrupts the myth that only the American South is implicated in the legacies of slavery, but is it also significant for understanding the role of white women in those legacies? Even though women could not will property under colonial Pennsylvania law, when Richard Harrison died in 1746 he gave the property to his wife, Hannah, bypassing his sons for unknown reasons. When Hannah died in 1774 she bequeathed the property to her daughter, also named Hannah, who joined deeds with her husband Charles Thomson in 1798 to convey the property to the descendants of her son-in-law Robert McClenachan. Under this arrangement, the plantation went to McClenachan’s granddaughter Naomi, who allocated one-third of the property to her eldest daughter Sarah. Sarah married George Vaux. Did Richard Harrison’s descendants purposely manipulate the law for generations to pass the property down to women in the family? Why? Did these women inherit Harrison’s slaves, or have any control over the wealth he built on slave labor? If they did, what did they do with their inheritance?

I also wanted to learn more about the work Harrison’s slaves did, their relationship to the Harrison family, and any other details that Bruce Copper-Gill, Curator and Executive Director at Harriton House, could provide. In the days leading up to my visit to Harriton House last week, I read about colonial Pennsylvania history and early settlement on the Main Line. My independent research, combined with my visit to Harriton House, revealed that the town of Bryn Mawr harbors a complex and astoundingly dynamic Black history. Harriton Plantation is a useful case study for understanding both enslaved and free Black life in the eighteenth century — two strands of historical experience often obscured in a country that remembers the era first and foremost for the Founding Fathers. Continue reading

“Monument Lab” Reflections

by Grace Pusey

Most of the blog posts that Emma and I wrote during the spring semester spotlighted our research findings, but not necessarily our research methodology or any of the other cool or interesting things we did related to the project. Monica Mercado, who is supervising my continued work on the Black at Bryn Mawr project, suggested I share these sorts of things on the blog as I move the project forward with a grant I secured for the summer. From now on you can find posts like this under the “Methodology” tab in the navigation bar. So far I have been busy giving tours, presenting at conferences, following up on research leads, arranging times to visit archives and historical sites, and reading, reading, reading. I hope sharing my experiences will interest you!

Yesterday I went to City Hall in Philadelphia to check out Monument Lab, a public art and urban research project guided by the question, What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia? Every day throughout the month of May and the first week in June, Philadelphians can stop by Monument Lab research pavilion at City Hall to see a series of art installations, partake in public events, enjoy the prototype monument by artist Terry Adkins, or listen to free dialogues led by Philadelphia artists and intellectuals. Visitors can sit at the picnic tables in front of the research pavilion to craft their own proposals for monuments, which are then mapped digitally and displayed online.

Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia. Major support for Monument Lab was provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage with partners including Penn Institute for Urban Research, City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, Haverford College, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PennDesign, the Philadelphia Center for Architecture, and RAIR.

Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia. Major support for Monument Lab was provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage with partners including Penn Institute for Urban Research, City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, Haverford College, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PennDesign, the Philadelphia Center for Architecture, and RAIR.

Monument Lab is an innovative project aimed at engaging people in dialogue about Philadelphia and what about the city matters to them. What about Philadelphia is important to Philadelphians? What is currently invisible that we want to make visible? Why are monuments important, and how do we use them to intervene in spatial narratives — the stories we tell about space? Continue reading

Black at Bryn Mawr: The Digital Tour

Cast of maids' and porters' play, ca. 1939 | Bryn Mawr College Special Collections, Bryn Mawr, PA

Cast of maids’ and porters’ play, ca. 1939 | Bryn Mawr College Special Collections, Bryn Mawr, PA

by Grace Pusey

The Black at Bryn Mawr digital tour is now live and can be viewed online here! The digital tour is not designed to replace the walking tour experience, but instead supplements it by enriching each location with archived photographs, digital materials, and links to other digitally accessible resources. The digital tour also includes information about sites too distant to include on the walking tour. Please note that the digital tour is still a work in progress and that the site is in beta mode, so the program may be a little buggy. I plan to update the map with new information, photographs, and resources throughout the summer, so stay tuned!

Grace’s Reflections on Black at Bryn Mawr

by Grace Pusey

Grace Pusey and Emma Kioko give a Black at Bryn Mawr tour to Professor Linda-Susan Beard's Tuesday morning class. (Credit: Monica Mercado)

Standing in front of Taylor Hall, Grace Pusey and Emma Kioko give a Black at Bryn Mawr tour to Professor Linda-Susan Beard’s Tuesday morning class. (Credit: Monica Mercado)

To date, Emma Kioko and I have given five tours to more than sixty students, staff, faculty, alumnae, trustees, and members of the local community. There are three more public tours scheduled for the semester; happily, two of these are tours we had to add to accommodate the overwhelming volume of interest in the project. I will also be offering a presentation on my digital walking tour at the Greenfield Center‘s “Women’s History in the Digital World” conference at Bryn Mawr College on May 21. The groundswell of support for Black at Bryn Mawr, I argue, is a testament to its necessity to the College community, and the positive feedback we’ve received on this blog (with its readership of 1,300+ strong) speaks to its value as a replicable model for similar public history projects. Overall, my experience with Black at Bryn Mawr has been incredible.

The project’s multidimensional approach to engaging the College community in understanding experiences of Black students, staff, and faculty throughout its history has deepened my awareness of Black history at Bryn Mawr and unsettled many of my assumptions about the spaces I move through and inhabit on campus. For example, I was unaware that servant tunnels even existed at Bryn Mawr prior to collaborating with Emma on a place-based approach to the College’s Black history, and had no idea that there was a cemetery behind English House, let alone one that belonged to a slaveholding Quaker family. I was not cognizant of the massive amount of unnamed, unseen, and now largely forgotten Black labor that went into building the College and curating its reputation as an aesthetically appropriate environment in which white women could socialize and study. I was unaware of M. Carey Thomas’ racist rhetoric and white supremacist beliefs and did not know that she envisioned Bryn Mawr not only as a place where women would be trained to become social, political, and cultural leaders, but as a place where white women would be groomed to inherit co-ownership of a role that had long belonged exclusively to white men: dominating over men and women of color. I feel like I have begun to grasp the gravitas of the fact that I walk daily through hallways and sit in classrooms designed to enrich the lives of women who look like me at the expense of Black women and other women of color.

As I draft the forthcoming digital tour (which will debut in May), this realization hits me even more viscerally in ways that force me to stop and think. For example, I have encountered photographs of a student’s room with Uncle Tom and pickaninny caricatures painted on the walls, and know from archival research that Black maids would have vacuumed and changed the sheets in that room every day while living in abysmal conditions themselves. It reminds me that College housekeeping and dining services staff, of whom many, if not most, are Black, are much less able to take an hour out of their day for the walking tour, spare the time to read this blog, or see the digital tour. I am overjoyed by the unanimously positive responses to the walking tour we’ve received so far, but if I could rewind time and restrategize our outreach to these groups, I would.

Student's dorm room, Merion Hall ca. 1902-1905 | Bryn Mawr College Special Collections, Bryn Mawr, PA

Student’s dorm room, Merion Hall ca. 1902-1905 | Bryn Mawr College Special Collections, Bryn Mawr, PA

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