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Rare portraits reflect black family’s legacy

 By Don Ogbewii Scott

PHILADELPHIA – Two extremely rare portraits of newly-wed African Americans with mixed-race blood ties to Philadelphia’s first mayor, Humphrey Morrey, whose term started in 1691, have been unveiled by black descendants of the 19th-century couple and “thrilled” Philadelphia Museum of Art officials.

Hiram Charles Montier was a boot maker in Philadelphia whose ancestor was the first mayor of Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of the collection of Mr. and Mrs. William Pickens III 

Several descendants of the Montier family traveled from New York State for the museum’s January 13, 2009 unveiling of the oil paintings, masterfully composed in 1841 and depicting Hiram Charles Montier and wife Elizabeth Brown Montier proudly sitting for a very skilled but relatively unknown Philadelphia-based artist, Franklin R. Street.

"The portraits have always been very significant to us," said descendant Pamela Pickens, 41, who co-hosted the unveiling with her brothers, John Montier Pickens, 36 and William Pickens 4th, age 39, further noting that her ancestors' images were found years ago beneath the bed of her father’s mother, or her grandmother, Emilie Brown Montier, born 1901. 

"Regular people do have regular histories that intersect with the extraordinary," said Pamela, referring to the recent inauguration of America’s first black president, Barack Obama, also with clear interracial roots.

The three siblings are the great-great-great grandchildren of Elizabeth and Hiram Montier, the enthralling human subjects of the rare paintings. Museum officials noted that very few liberated African Americans were ever depicted classically in fine clothes and with standing in society during a period when slavery and insidious racism were still prevalent in America. 

Family members, including Pamela’s father, William Pickens, 3rd, quickly realized the incredible significance of the find and had the paintings professionally restored before contacting the Philadelphia Museum of Art since it’s located in the primary city where many of the Montier family descendants worshipped, worked and lived. 

"We restored them," remarked John Montier Pickens to The Philadelphia Inquirer and whose parents William Pickens 3rd and Patricia Pickens, made arrangements to loan the paintings to the museum. "The stars lined up. It’s extraordinary . . . This is truly an American story that needed to be shared, and what better place to share it?"

Elizabeth Brown Montier had recently married her husband Hiram when their portraits were made in 1841. The paintings are on long-term loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of the collection of Mr. and Mrs. William Pickens III 

Museum officials were also delighted about the long-term loan of the portraits.

"We are thrilled to be able to represent in our American galleries these exceptional paintings that document Philadelphia’s early African American community," said Alice Beamesderfer, interim head of curatorial affairs at the museum. "The Montier portraits present a wonderful opportunity to learn about Philadelphia’s diverse past and specifically about African American life here during the mid-19th century."

"This is indeed the ultimate homecoming," remarked Hiram’s great-great-great grandson John Montier Pickens. 

John’s brother, William Pickens, 4th, added that the family is very gratified to know that the paintings have been so well received.

Early Quaker leaders of Pennsylvania owned slaves, including the state’s founder William Penn and Philadelphia’s first mayor, Humphrey Morrey, whose son Richard would ignite a relationship with one of the family’s slaves, Cremona. The relationship resulted in the birth of five children and the family’s emancipation as well as Cremona Morrey receiving in 1746 from Richard 198 acres of land where a small black town (Guineatown) developed near what’s today Arcadia University, just northwest of Philadelphia. A colonial-era family home was also built that still stands on what’s today Limekiln Pike in Glenside. An associated cemetery was established nearby too. 

Meanwhile, one of Cremona and Richard’s five children was also named Cremona in honor of her mother. The younger Cremona married a free black man, John Montier, and one of their children, Solomon (born 1770), is a direct ancestor of William Pickens, 3rd, via his maternal line. The elder Cremona reportedly remarried a free black named John Fry just one year after Richard died, according to historical records. 

Hiram Montier, a boot-maker and depicted as a finely-dressed gentleman in one of the "extremely well-crafted" oil paintings, was Richard and Cremona’s great grandson. 

Richard and Cremona eventually had their five children, despite Richard at some point being married to another woman, archival records indicate.

Descendants and museum officials pose in front of two very rare 19th-century portraits of newly-wed free blacks in the Philadelphia area. Pictured above are the great-great-great grandchildren (Pickens family) and museum officials, including (from left to right) William Pickens 4th; Mark Mitchell, assistant curator and manager, Center for American Art; Pamela Pickens; Kathleen Foster, the Robert L. McNeil, Jr. senior curator of American Art and director, Center for American Art and John Montier Pickens. Photo by Jason Wierzbicki, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

Eventually, though, Richard and Cremona’s union was virtually deemed a marriage since she took on his surname of Morrey and they likely did not hide their relationship as it developed, ultimately leading Richard to bequeath her the sizeable amount of land. There must have been a strong element of "love" in the relationship, insists William Pickens, 3rd, despite acknowledging that initially Cremona was enslaved by the Morrey family. 

Pickens had previously conducted extensive research concerning his family’s history, even retrieving deeds and wills with the guidance of Philadelphia-area researchers and historians, including Reginald Pitts, a contributor to local history journals of the Old York Road Historical Society.

The "fascinating story" and paintings bring more focus to topics that aren’t often exposed, remarked Kathleen Foster, the museum’s curator of American art, adding that they’re vital to recognizing the “intriguing” social dynamics of early-American society.

The oil paintings are "extremely rare," especially since they are of African Americans with interracial roots to the country’s colonial elite, said Mark Mitchell, assistant curator and manager of the museum’s Center for American Art. "The Montier family’s connection to one of the first families of Philadelphia makes these portraits all the more significant."

The portraits hang appropriately in a section of the museum that is quintessentially American, Foster said, near a huge stoneware jar created in 1859 by craftsman David Drake who was an enslaved African American and other “great” artwork depicting William Penn and indigenous Americans.

And although the artist, Franklin R. Street, was not well-known, his work is clearly comparable to highly esteemed artists of the colonial and post-colonial eras and "extremely well crafted," Mitchell said. Researchers found that Street’s name is listed in city directories as an artist who likely also worked as a commercial painter. At this point, it’s not clear if Street was ethnically white or black.

William Pickens, 3rd, whose grandfather William Pickens, Sr. co-founded the NAACP with the black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois and boasts of family ties to the great black activist and scholar Paul Robeson, Jr., said in an earlier story that can be found at "We were here before America became a nation  . . . My granddaughter [Breighan Camille Pickens] is the 9th-generation woman. We’ve come a very long way."

Donald Ogbewii Scott, a history columnist for the Journal-Register Co. and graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Cheyney University, has written about history for The Philadelphia Inquirer, America’s Civil War, England’s National Archives magazine Ancestors, and Everton’s Family History Network. Scott has been a history lecturer in Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Speakers’ Program and researcher for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. The assistant professor of English at the Community College of Philadelphia has taught at Temple University, Pierce College and Cheyney University. Scott resides in Cheltenham, Township, Pa. He may be reached at

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15 Feb 2009 :: 8 May 2009
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