Historic African American owned farm is first to be honored by state commission
In 1793, the majority of African Americans were enslaved.
"Only 10% were free," said M. Denise Dennis. "And of that 10%, very, very few owned land.”
George Washington was in his second term as president and 72 years would still need to pass before slavery was abolished in the United States.
In Susquehanna County, Prince and Judith Perkins, free African Americans from Connecticut, were buying land.
“They owned property. And were not the property of someone else,” said Dennis.
Now, a permanent bronze bell marks the historical significance of the 153-acre Dennis Family Farm, a farm still owned by the family 230 years later.
“We are honored, my ancestors are honored," said Dennis, the oldest member of the seventh generation of her family.
The farm is the oldest African American owned farm in the country. The over five-foot-tall bell is the first of a handful that will be dedicated by the America250PA Commission across the state to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the United States in 2026.
Members of the family’s eighth generation joined Dennis Wednesday during the bell dedication on the property. Local, state and federal representatives were also at the ceremony which opened with gathering music played on a violin and renditions of the "National Anthem" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
In 1792, Prince Perkins was awarded 25 pounds, six shillings and four pence — around $2,500 — for his service as a solider in the Revolutionary War. A year later, he purchased the farm in what is now Kingsley for six pounds or around $500 in current currency.
Angeline Perkins, Prince and Judith's granddaughter, inherited the farm 1858. In the same year, her husband, Henry W. Dennis, sold his farm in Dimock and purchased 100 acres adjacent to the Perkins Farm. From that point on, the property was known as the Dennis Farm.
The family was always a part of the community.
A book about Susquehanna County's history, published in 1873, described Prince Perkins as "the soul of all the early dancing parties in the vicinity," said Dennis, who swung on a hammock on the lawn and ran in and out of the farmhouse as a kid.
When the Civil War began, fourth generations of the family had already lived on the farm.
"We're able to do something that is hard even now for African Americans to do, to have property to bequeath to future generations," said Dennis. "And it happened right here in Pennsylvania.”
The America250PA Commission is planning and coordinating upcoming events surrounding the 250th anniversary of the United States in 2026.
“The American dream was realized through her ancestors' story and realized by free African Americans at a time when that was anything but common,” said Cassandra Coleman, executive director of the commission. “To highlight the grit that Denise and her family's ancestors had against such great odds. There was no question that this was the place that the first Semiquincentennial Bell must be placed."
Coleman said the goal of the bells is to highlight and recognize remarkable stories that were sometimes left out of the history books.
"As a local person ... to know that this historic gem is in our backyard and to not know about it," said Coleman. "That's where we're hoping American250PA can step in."
Before the bell dedication was over, U.S. Senator Bob Casey presented Dennis with a letter, reading: “The Dennis Farm has served for so many years as a symbol of resilience and prosperity throughout Pennsylvania and across the nation.”
That letter was signed by Vice President of the United States Kamala Harris.
"I can't imagine what our ancestors would think about being honored with the Commonwealth's first Semiquincentennial Bell to commemorate our nation's 250th birthday," said Dennis.
Her voice started to break as she held back tears.
"I'm usually a really cool character," she joked.
She said her ancestors are celebrating. They are proud of their descendants.
“Whenever I feel discouraged about the rancor of our times, I reflect on this beautiful green hillside farm, my ancestors and the trying times in which they lived," Dennis said. "They held fast to their faith in God and to the promise, the promise of America.”