The American Folk Park near Omagh was established in 1976 as Northern Ireland’s contribution to the American Bicentenary, being constructed around the original homestead of Thomas Mellon, who as a boy of five years old emigrated with his parents to Western Pennsylvania. It was thus that the Mellon family and in particular, Dr Matthew T Mellon, initiated the restoration of the Mellon homestead, which was completed in 1968. Further development then took place in the 1970’s. Matthew T Mellon CBE and Mr Eric Montgomery OBE were instrumental in the establishment of the Ulster American Folk Park, portraying the immigrant trail to America.
Matthew T Mellon was born in 1897 and served as an ensign in the US Navy during World War One before entering Princeton University. After receiving a MA in Philosophy from Harvard, he earned a Doctorate from the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität of Freiburg in Germany where he taught American Studies from 1928 to 1939. In 1934 he published in Boston his book Early American Views on Negro Slavery, which is now a leading textbook for African American Studies throughout the world. The ringing words “all men are created equal” ushered in America’s War of Independence. Yet the man who wrote them, Thomas Jefferson, remained a slave owner, as did the first President of the United States, George Washington.
The early roots of racism still haunting American society and the American psyche are the subject of Matthew’s landmark study. From the public papers and private letters of the Founding Fathers, this brilliant historian revealed the paradox of men who often could not escape the bonds of prejudice even as they opened up a new chapter of human freedom. Matthew Mellon provided in meticulous detail a blow-by-blow account of the evolution of the views on slavery and the “Negro question” held by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. As might be expected, all five, products of the Enlightenment, were critical of slavery. But only the two Northerners, Franklin and Adams, were prepared to strike against the slave system directly and to associate themselves with those movements for manumission, whilst the Southerners, regardless of their humane impulses, felt constrained by the social prejudices of the society in which they lived. For nearly 50 years I have travelled throughout the United States and am perhaps fondest of all of the people of the Deep South. But I have always been appalled by the system of slavery and, being an innocent abroad, suffered with the Black community the indignity of segregation, sitting with them at the wrong end of the bus and not knowing I was breaking the Law.
Although Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence has long been a target of egalitarians for his alleged inconsistency in these matters, he did do as much, if not more, than any of the Founding Fathers to curtail the system of slavery. The clause he had inserted in the Great Declaration censuring the slave trade was struck out by Congress. His far-reaching proposal in the 1784 Ordinance to bar slavery from all the western territories after 1800 might well, if it had been adopted, obviated the coming of the American Civil War.
My books on Ulster and the Cruthin delighted Matthew and he sent me a signed copy of Early American Views on Negro Slavery. Much regretted by his friends and family, he died in 1992 on 24th June, that fateful day when my great hero Congal Cláen was killed at the Battle of Moira in 637 AD. For many years now I have tried to establish the 24th June as one of the most important in the calendar of British, Irish and Ulster history. My efforts fell on stony ground in the new Northern Ireland Assembly and the East Belfast Constituency of the Ulster Unionist Party… yet “hope springs eternal in the human breast”.
Matthew T. Mellon '22 Princeton Alumni Weekly
The Rich: Back to the Quid Sod TIME magazine Friday, Jun. 28, 1968