Edith Dennis Moore Stephens, 79, of Philadelphia, a longtime teacher and the descendant of one of the earliest free African American families to own property in the rural North, died Thursday, Aug. 31.
Mrs. Stephens was about to go to a rehab center after being treated for several conditions at Jefferson University Hospital when she went into a rapid decline, said her son, Lonnie Moore III. The exact cause of death wasn’t clear.
“She was my best friend for years,” Moore said. “As an only child, we had been through so much together.”
Although Mrs. Stephens was known as a Philadelphia teacher, she began her career in Ellenville, N.Y., and then Morristown, N.J.
In 1962, after moving to the city, she spent the next 36 years as a public elementary teacher, the bulk of that time at the Richard R. Wright School at 2700 W. Dauphin St.
“Beloved by her students, Edith was a creative teacher who wrote original plays and songs, enjoyed teaching science, and took a personal interest in each student,” her family said.
In recognition of her contributions, Mrs. Stephens was given the Rose Lindenbaum Award. The award was named after a Philadelphia teacher and supervisor who had focused on students with special needs.
Mrs. Stephens was born Edith Ann Dennis, the daughter of Norman H. and Harriette Payne Dennis, in Wilkes-Barre. She lived in Philadelphia and in Haverford, Delaware County, before returning to Philadelphia.
She could trace her lineage to her great-great-great-grandparents, Prince and Judith Perkins. In 1793, when Gen. George Washington was beginning his second term as president, the couple made their way from Connecticut to northeastern Pennsylvania. Both free African Americans, they became the oldest black family in the region.
More notable, they were among the first blacks to buy a farm, paid for with Prince Perkins’ earnings from fighting for the town of Norwich, Conn., during the Revolutionary War.
The property in Tunkhannock, Susquehanna County called the Dennis Farm, was named for a Perkins granddaughter, Angeline Perkins Dennis. She inherited the farm, and her husband, Henry, worked it until his death in 1882.
In September 2014, the property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. “The Park Service is honoring land that was cultivated by generations of the Perkins-Dennis family, at a time in American history when the odds against free African Americans succeeding as independent, land-owning farmers were tremendous, and African American-owned farms in the rural North were rare,” officials wrote.
“To put this in perspective, it’s worth noting that at that time, 90 percent of African Americans were enslaved and lived in the South, and of the 10 percent who were free, very few were landowners. To own land was the key to real freedom,” said Denise Dennis, president and CEO of the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust.
Mrs. Stephens was an executor of the property, which is being restored. She and her son checked on the farm each summer. “It was a passion of hers,” he said.
Several of the Perkins-Dennis family’s 19th-century artifacts are on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
Known to family and friends as “Deedee,” Mrs. Stephens graduated in 1956 from Elmer L. Meyers High School, Wilkes-Barre. She enrolled in Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1960 with a bachelor of science degree in education.
In 1961, Mrs. Stephens married Lonnie H. Moore, Jr. and in 1965, gave birth to their son. After the couple divorced in 1980, she married Henry Stephens. They, too, divorced. Stephens died earlier; Lonnie Moore Jr. survives.
A lifelong member of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, Mrs. Stephens joined the historic Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia and its cathedral choir, Richard Allen Missionary Society, and social action committee.
An influential community worker, Mrs. Stephens was a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority; board member and historian of the NAACP, Philadelphia Chapter; charter board member of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Philadelphia Chapter; and a founding member of the Belmont Mansion Heritage Society.
For 40 years ending in 2015, Mrs. Stephens was a poll watcher and judge of elections at 3900 Ford Rd. in the 52nd Democratic Ward.
In addition to her son and former husband, Mrs. Stephens is survived by three grandchildren; a sister; and a niece and nephew.
Services were held Monday Sept. 11, at Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church.
Memorial donations may be made to the church at 419 S. Sixth St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19147.