Honoring the legacy of an 18th-century black woman, Cremona Morrey Fry, who was a former slave on the Cheltenham estate of Philadelphia’s first mayor, Humphrey Morrey (appointed in 1691), epitomizes the significance of Women’s History Month in March as an early spring seems to be enveloping us.
Remarkably, Morrey’s son Richard would have five interracial children with Cremona during the 1730s and 1740s, leading to the birth of one of the first black towns in America and iconic historical figures such as the Bustills and Paul Robeson, the great African American scholar, actor, athlete and activist, say several sources.
It’s an enthralling story that I’ve covered for years and recently spoke about to City of Philadelphia Law Department attorneys and legal workers alongside Karen Smyles, the writer-producer of an Emmy-nominated WHYY (PBS) television program, “The Montiers: An American Story,” originally shown in 2018, then re-broadcast several times over the past couple of years, including 2020.
The Morrey estate was located in what’s today Cheltenham Township where Cremona had been initially enslaved during the early 1700s, but later liberated, a status that included her daughter, also named Cremona (destined to marry John Montier), and other children.
You see, the elder Cremona, likely born about 1710, was ultimately given 200 acres of land by Richard in the vicinity of Arcadia University in Glenside, not far from where Philly’s Assistant City Solicitor Raina I. Yancey was raised.
After viewing the approximately 30-minute documentary on television, Yancey invited me and Smyles to speak during a Wed., Feb. 26 Black History Month re-airing of the program at her law department offices, 1515 Arch St., in Philadelphia.
“I actually grew up in Glenside on Montier land and feel honored to have grown up on land that belonged to an African-American woman several hundreds of years ago,” Yancey said.
The production, narrated by Smyles, features Montier descendants and commentators, including me, as well as local historians Thomas Wieckowski, David Rowland, Mary Washington and others from the Cheltenham Township Historical Commission, Old York Road Historical Society and Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Smyles, who’s also a Cheltenham resident like yours truly and the winner of four prior Mid-Atlantic Emmys, says she first learned about the story in a 2009 press statement and columns that I had written based on my discovery of articles authored earlier by scholar-researcher Reginald Pitts for the Old York Road Historical Society Bulletin.
A modern descendant of the historic family, William Pickens, III of Sag Harbor, NY, says he grew up in New York learning about the rich history of his Philadelphia-area ancestors and became enthralled about their fascinating story as he matured.
A graduate of the University of Vermont and former corporate executive, Pickens’ research has been wide-ranging, making him an ideal and major contributor to the WHYY telecast.
Pickens describes the relationship between Richard and Cremona Sr. as an intense interracial love (despite social conventions and laws of the period discouraging and even outlawing such unions).
Yet, there’s evidence that a Richard Morrey in Abington Monthly Meeting minutes had been married to a woman named Ann, probably of British heritage.
Ann, depending on the source, either passed away or severed ties with Richard and moved to England, possibly with the couple’s son, before or by Oct. 1751 when “Ann Morrey, late wife of Richard Morrey, made a will with consent of her said husband ….”
Regardless, Pickens believes that proof of the loving marital relationship between Cremona and Richard, in addition to their five children, is that Cremona openly shared his surname of Morrey.
He also passed to her 198 acres of land on which Cremona’s daughter, Cremona Jr., would eventually build a home (that still stands today along Limekiln Pike in Glenside) during America’s Revolutionary War period with her husband, John Montier, likely a black man from one of the French-speaking Caribbean islands, perhaps Haiti.
Pickens says he is descended maternally from Cremona Jr. and her son, Solomon, who became a shoemaker, as well as one of Solomon’s children, Hiram.
Indeed, Hiram in recent years was found as the subject of one of two exceedingly rare 1841 portraits, including his wife Elizabeth, that were found under the bed of one of Pickens’ ancestors and subsequently restored and displayed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The portraits by artist Franklin R. Street are of great interest to art historians because they show middle-class, free African Americans, clad in fine attire and jewelry, thriving in the United States during a period when slavery was still prevalent in many parts of the country.
On that note, as I discussed during the Feb. 26 program, certain dynamics between Richard Morrey and Cremona, Sr., must also be considered.
For instance, to what degree did Cremona Morrey Fry feel coerced in her relationship with Richard Morrey as a black woman who had been his slave and then employee? Did Cremona feel empowered enough to rebuff Richard’s romantic overtures? And if she had rejected him, what would have been her fate?
I believe that there had to be some degree of interpersonal and societal pressure, especially since Richard and Cremona could have been severely punished legally and socially at certain points because of their interracial relationship.
Did Richard’s huge stature in the community protect both from such punishment?
Further, why is it not long before Richard died during the mid-1750s (depending on the source), the relationship between Cremona and Richard may have become distant or even severed?
There’s even local documentation that a man named “Rich. Morrey” married another woman, Sarah Allen, in 1746.
Meanwhile, a few years after Richard’s death, Cremona Sr., married a free African American named John Fry, also known as “African John Fry,” before she died about 1770.
Perhaps, more details or answers to such questions will become much more obvious as time passes, as well as when we learn the whereabouts of most of the cemetery remains of 75 Montier family members and others who lived near the Montier homestead in a small black settlement, Guineatown, along and near the 200 block of Limekiln Pike.
The remains were supposedly removed during a 1963 road-widening project, but documentation has been scarce to nonexistent, despite the discovery of a few family members in area cemeteries not confirmed so far to be originally buried in Guineatown.
Notably, Smyles, an African American, says, “It is a story that continues to fascinate….
“It would be my dream to be able to produce a major documentary on the Montier family,” Smyles said as she continues to seek funding, harnessing the optimism that characterizes an early Spring.
“This is a story that is important in so many ways. It not only shows the presence and importance of an early African American family here in Philadelphia, but reminds young people and everyone, that we were doing much more than believed.”
Don ‘Ogbewii’ Scott, a Melrose Park resident, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about his local history books can be found at www.kumbayah-universal.com. The WHYY program about the Montiers can be accessed at https://whyy.org/montiers-american-story/.