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American Family, American Dream

A new Smithsonian exhibit honors the legacy of Denise Dennis ’72 and Darryl Gore ’79’s family and farm

The elevator was slow. 

By the time it delivered Denise Dennis ’72 to the second floor, the other guests at the preview gala for the “Through the African American Lens” exhibition had already entered the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) gallery space.

When Dennis caught up with them, the curators were describing the first exhibit. 


“I took that chance to stand in the back and hear our family’s history—something I’m usually explaining to people—described by curators,” she says. “It was very moving. Many people think there’s only one narrative about African-Americans—the slavery narrative—but our family’s goal in sharing our history is to expand that.”

Dennis and her brother Darryl Gore ’79 are direct descendants of the Perkins-Dennis family, which traces its history back to 1700. Not only did their forebears always live freely in New England, but they passed down a 153-acre Pennsylvania farm across the centuries and generations.

“Simple people can have so much importance in the history of this country,” Gore says. “When I tell people that we still have land in our family that has been with us since George Washington was president, no one can believe it.”

“This isn’t land that a white slaveowner gave to his slave children,” Dennis adds. “This is land that this free African-American family bought and cultivated by and for themselves at a time when owning black people was the law.” 

Purchased for 6 pounds in 1793 by Prince Perkins, a Connecticut-born African-American who may have earned his freedom fighting in the Revolutionary War, the farm, in rural Hop Bottom, Susquehanna County, Pa., reached its current acreage in 1858, when granddaughter Angeline Perkins and husband Henry W. Dennis purchased 100 additional acres. 

Thanks to the family’s determination, today, the Dennis Farm has been listed on the National Register of Historic places as a site of national significance and was declared a Pennsylvania historical landmark. And as they continue to work toward their goal of restoring the farm into a full-scale educational and cultural site, programs and public tours are already underway.

Their preservation effort has been both a labor of love as well as a family affair.

“We’re proud, but that’s not what our family is all about—we know our history is special but we’re also very humbled by it,” Gore says. “I gladly give Denise all the credit for keeping our focus, because she’s done the work with all her heart and soul, the way big sisters do.”

“I am the eldest of the seventh generation and you can tell,” Dennis concedes with a laugh. “But Darryl is indispensible—he has been so supportive. Every trip I make to the farm, he’s been there.”

Dennis serves as president of the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust, which she co-founded with her great aunt, Hope Dennis, a guidance counselor who steered her to Swarthmore. 

“She really did us a favor—Swarthmore was so good for Darryl and me. You come out of there knowing and believing in yourself,” Dennis says. “You have to, in order to survive!”

Much of the siblings’ self-confidence comes from their family’s long and proud history. Although they grew up hearing these stories, visiting the farm, and handling heirlooms like the family Bible, it wasn’t until Dennis began her exhaustive research to collect documentation that they realized just how remarkable their history truly was.

She uncovered proof that Henry W. Dennis’s father, James Dennis, was a teamster in the War of 1812 and three of his nephews fought in the Civil War. She also discovered that her great-great grandfather, Ralph Payne, who was in the United States Colored Troops, the 41st regiment, was one of 2,000 African-Americans present when Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Va.

Ultimately, the records she compiled reflected her family’s tenacity, including an affidavit from the early 19th century where Henry W. Dennis proved a store clerk had overcharged him and James Dennis’s petition to Congress to receive back pay he lost when a blustery day blew his papers into the snow before the Battle of Plattsburgh.

In fact, when Smithsonian curators first approached Dennis about contributing to the exhibit, they were floored—not just by the wealth of artifacts she had, but by her wealth of knowledge.

“Often, you’ll come across something wonderful and there’ll be some information, but not enough really to situate an artifact properly,” says Jacquelyn Days Serwer, NMAAHC chief curator. “But Denise is a force of nature. She had done such in-depth research on the family and the pieces that it was extraordinary to hear her talk about them.”

Sharing their story brings a fire to Dennis’s voice, as she describes how, while reading Jon Meacham’s 2012 biography Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, she was struck by the irony of Jefferson’s belief that free African-Americans wouldn’t know how to manage their own land.

“He said that at a time when my family was already on the farm,” she says. “It’s very important that stories like this come out. Not just my family’s story, but again, stories that show the longevity of African-American self-determination. The American Dream was not designed with African-Americans in mind, and it’s still a struggle.”

The Perkins-Dennis farm and family exhibit will remain at the beginning of the “Through the African American Lens” exhibition, with its Bible dating back to 1863 situated across from the shawl Queen Victoria sent to Harriet Tubman, until fall 2016, when the new NMAAHC building will be complete. Then, it will receive its permanent home among such iconic displays as the dining room table around which the Brown v. Board of Education case began.

Rather than personally take credit for her family’s inclusion, however, Dennis dedicates this honor to the generations who came before her, “who bought the books, paid the taxes, wrote the documents, and saved everything against great odds.

“When Daddy—Norman Henry Dennis—would tell me the story of our family when we were up at the farm or show me their names in books, it gave me my first sense of history,” she says. “I saw my family as this long continuum of people, joining hands across time and eternity, and I was one person in that long chain of people.

“They knew that there was a larger story to be told, which is why our artifacts were so lovingly passed from one generation to another,” she says. “It is an honor—that is the best word—an honor to know that our story, and stories of families like ours who beat the odds when the nation was new, will be shared for posterity.” 


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