Dr. Walter Greason
Norristown Times Herald
8 July 2014
Norristown’s history is closely related to the events of the American Revolution. The summer celebrations offer an important time to reflect on the meaning of freedom, especially given the town’s proximity to Philadelphia. Too many people overlook the importance of Philadelphia to British North America, and ultimately, the formation of the United States. Analysts more concerned with the present focus on New York City, Los Angeles, and Houston as the symbols of America as a world power. None of the later developments like the Constitution, industrialization, or globalization would have been possible without the definitive influences of southeastern Pennsylvania.
Montgomery County, with Norristown as its county seat, was formed in 1784 – less than a decade after the Declaration of Independence. The borough (now, a home rule municipality) was officially recognized in 1812. This time period was the era of national consolidation as the Constitution took effect in 1789 and global acceptance of American independence did not emerge until 1815. Isaac Norris, Sr. purchased the area associated with Norristown in 1704 from William Penn. Here, the story becomes more complicated and important. Norris’ primary occupation was slave trading. Like many Northern merchants, his activity was extraordinarily profitable in the first half of the eighteenth century. His son – a distinguished statesman in early Pennsylvania – continued in the trade through its later peaks after 1750.
One of the slaves owned by the Norris family through this period was a young woman named Dinah. She was transferred from the wife of the elder Norris to her daughter, Elizabeth, some time after 1740. Dinah served Elizabeth for twenty years before being granted her freedom. In the narratives that document this history, the Quaker legacy of consistent manumission has received significant emphasis. However, the wealth generated by the decades of trading African bodies deserves equal attention.
Norris, Sr. owned a massive estate along 7th Avenue in Philadelphia between York and Cumberland streets. This site was considered the country seat of governance for the region at the time of the American Revolution. The British Army targeted and destroyed it in their attempts to suppress the rebellion. By any measure of both economic and political prominence, the Norris family built their legacy through the ownership and commerce in human beings like Dinah. It is a legacy that persists today in the very name of this community and its leadership role as the county seat for Montgomery County.
Norristown is not alone in this distinction. Indeed, thousands of rural communities throughout the northeastern United States owe their very existence to the wealth generated through the African slave trade in the eighteenth century. Over the next year, this space will encourage more scholars and students to undertake the study of Northern slavery and segregation, especially in terms of the economic wealth and political prestige these systems generated between 1700 and 1940. These legacies are not the exclusive province of the states below the Mason-Dixon line. By understanding and celebrating the lives of women like Dinah, a new commitment to unity and diversity in every town will emerge.
Dr. Walter Greason is the Chief Executive Officer of the International Center for Metropolitan Growth (www.icmetrogrowth.com) and the author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey. His work is available on LinkedIn, Twitter (@worldprofessor1/@icmgrowth), Facebook, and by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).