"Delaware like Gaul is divided into three parts, counties, if you will, or as wits have it, two counties at high tide, and three at low."
Alice Dunbar-Nelson

"An old and rich country, Maryland--fit for kings, and slaves--the lush riches of the country had been owned by the most regal wealth and worked by a subject people."
Earl Conrad

In January 1994, my phone rang. The pleasant, unfamiliar voice belonged to Beth Doty of the Christian Council of Delaware and the Eastern Shore. She asked if the Black American Studies program at the University of Delaware could write a history of African Americans in the region to be used in local schools and churches. My first response was that this must already have been done. I checked. It had not, and so this project was born.

Our intent is to reveal the long neglected and ignored history of a people who fought against incredible odds merely to be left alone to live, work, and raise their families. Many heroic lives are portrayed in this volume. And questions are raised about what might have been if these struggles were directed against poverty, disease, and ignorance instead of discrimination.


Alice Dunbar-Nelson, wife of black poet laureate Paul Lawrence Dunbar gives us an interesting point to begin looking at Delaware. In the fall of 1924, she published an article in the journal, Messenger, about Delaware for a series called, "These Colored United States." The article, "Delaware--A Jewel of Inconsistencies," was remarkably flattering. "The Negro in Delaware," wrote Dunbar-Nelson, "believes in his diamond state, and loves it, prospers when it prospers, sorrows when it is sad, and is loyal to a degree that is fine." In fact, Dunbar-Nelson found it "irritating" that the black population was so loyal.

She had a point. The Delaware that Dunbar-Nelson described in 1924 hardly invited such loyalty. Wilmington, for example, had a population of 110,000 with 11,000 blacks. However, no black policemen, firemen or lawyers lived in the city. "Delaware is the only state in the Union," Dunbar-Nelson wrote, "where a colored man may not practice law. There is no law against it, merely custom and maneuver." While there were no separate street or railway cars or waiting rooms, Dunbar-Nelson observed, "restaurants and soda foundations, except in rare instances, will not serve Negroes," and theaters will admit them only occasionally to the gallery. She concluded, "Delaware is a state of anomalies, of political and social contradictions. Still, there are few states where the relations between the races are more amicable." She supports this claim by suggesting there is, "never a public movement of any sort that does not have on its committee the names of one or more Negro citizens of good standing, and colored men and women are always consulted in all matters of public interest."

Delaware's mixed roots explain some of the anomaly. Balanced between the North and the South, it had a well-defined system of segregation and discrimination but one without extreme expression of race prejudice. There was, according to Dunbar- Nelson, only one lynching, for example. "Delaware is located on the periphery of the Old South, and that fact is central to understanding the state's past. Even today the southern mystique continues to cast a spell over the culture and thought patterns of many of its residents," wrote Bill Williams in the introduction to his recent study, Slavery and Freedom in Delaware, 1639-1865.

In over 300 years of residency, blacks have established themselves as a vital and integral part of the state. Black labor both--slave and free--was essential to its economic development. But, dependence on black labor was itself problematic. Coercive labor laws discussed by both Dalleo and Amuti (in this volume) suggest some of the tensions within this relationship. The need to maintain the labor force, Williams suggests, "was balanced by the growing white fear of what was proportionally at least, the largest free African American population in the United States."

Politically, with a voting strength of over 13,000, Dunbar-Nelson argued that blacks were able to exercise something of a balance of power--to represent the deciding factor in a close election. In the elections of 1922, she points out the black electorate "punished" Caleb Layton, a Republican who had voted against the Dyer anti-lynching bill and helped return Democratic Senator Bayard, a Democratic Congressman and elected a Democratic majority in the General Assembly. "They had not originally intended to do as much," she contended, "but the insistence of Republican leaders that the Negro did not know how to scratch (split) the ticket so angered Negroes that they did not scratch the ballot but voted solidly Democratic." Suffrage worker Florence Bayard Hilles, daughter of Thomas Bayard and sister of the Senator, added more irony to the situation when she observed, "The Democratic party was afraid to give the colored women the vote for fear of simply doubling the Republican vote, and the first time the party has been in power for a generation it was swept in by these same colored women, who rose in their righteous wrath against the traditions of their men."

Blacks were not only important to the state's economic and political development, but to its folklore and mythology as well. Dunbar-Nelson speaks of a huge black man, for example, "who suddenly appeared, no one knew from where, at the Battle of the Brandywine, a battle that was going badly for the American troops." This "Black Sampson," as she calls him, "nonchalantly went through the British lines, mowing down the redcoats as if they were so much wheat." According to the legend, his courage won the battle. His story found a place in the hearts of the black school children of her day.

Black Delawareans, serving as the conscience of the state, were also active participants in struggles to eradicate injustice and bigotry. Beginning with religious leaders Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, who in 1800, introduced legislation in the United States House of Representatives to abolish slavery, continuing with the five "mighty oaks" in Gibson's article, to Louis Redding and Herman Holloway in the Newton/Carey article, and to the present with the political leadership of Henry, Scott, Plant, and Sills.


Historically, the Eastern Shore of Maryland has had an unsettled relationship with the rest of its state, including numerous proposals for its secession. By contrast, it has had a social and cultural attachment to Delaware of long standing. As early as the 1750's, Maryland planters began to move into Delaware's unsettled regions in search of additional land, creating a common heritage and a common history.

The Eastern Shore, like Delaware, has had a troubling history in regard to its black population. Both states were part slave, part free. Both experienced a shift to grain crops which reduced the reliance on slave labor, but did not eliminate it. Both sent large numbers of soldiers to defend the Union even as slaves were held. Delaware was one of the largest stations of the Underground Railroad. Maryland, whose slavery was often described as mild in comparison with its southern neighbors, was by contrast home to some of the most famous and daring slave escapes.

Like Dunbar-Nelson, Theophilus Lewis, journalist and theater critic, wrote about his state, Maryland, for "These Colored United States." In 1923, his comments were equally laudatory. "When it comes to locating a commonwealth richer in high ideals, fine spirit, and pep and go, you will find precious few states that outclass the old Panhandle," he wrote. While much of his commentary applied to the Western rather than the Eastern Shore, he encompassed all when he observed, "There are still points of friction between the races, I admit, but their number is constantly diminishing." Lewis praised the economic accomplishments of Maryland's leading black citizens. He admired, as well, the political savvy of a population able to repeatedly elect political representatives. He was concerned, however, that Maryland school children lacked general knowledge of Black history and, in particular, of Maryland Black history. Of its most famous citizen, Frederick Douglass, he wrote, "Do the histories we buy for our colored schools tell all about him, so little black Marylanders can be inspired by his example and emulate him? I'll tell the world they do not."

Ironically, William Williams made a similar point in his recent volume, written some 75 years later. "In 1984," he observed, "while writing a short history of Delaware, I noticed how little had been published on the state's African-Americans or on black-white race relations. Since then, not much has changed." He points out further that Delaware's records on the black experience in slavery and freedom are not numerous, detailed, or complete because the small number of slave holders produced an even smaller number of record keepers: slave units were small and less likely to be written about, and once free, blacks held little interest for literate whites and literate blacks were few in number. Consequently, we are forced to reconstruct a history without a detailed written record.

Like Williams and Lewis, we seek to fill this void. With this volume of articles on the history of Blacks in Delaware and the Eastern Shore we intend to reveal more of a neglected aspect of the region's history--the contributions of African-Americans. Each chapter explores a range of experiences with an eye toward examining themes of persistence, courage, and invention. It celebrates Aunt Sallie Shadd, who is said to have invented ice cream, and Harriet Tubman, who not content to free herself, slept by day and explored the marshes by night, mapping escape routes so that others might be free. It celebrates lesser knowns as well. It celebrates those, who through it all, remain loyal to a region that has always received more than it has given.

We have not attempted to write a definitive history. Rather, this volume is a first step to explore the past from several perspectives. We have tried to be inclusive, but of course, many more stories need to be told. We hope you will take up where we left off. The articles are provided on computer diskette and may be added to or edited as necessary. We welcome your additions and your input--this is a first edition.

In part one, we begin with an historical overview painted with a broad brush. James Newton chronicles a brief history of the area from 1639 to the present. Carol Hoffecker and Annette Woolard explore black women's contributions from slavery to the present. James Newton and Harmon Carey examine seven men whose lives and work, from slavery to the present, made a difference to the state. Clara Small studies abolitionists, free blacks, and runaway slaves on the Eastern Shore. She asks the question: if slavery was so mild, why is it home to many of the most celebrated escapes? Margaret Andersen views letters from the Freedmen's Bureau in an effort to understand what happened on the Eastern Shore following the end of slavery. Finally, Judith Gibson investigates the accomplishments of five black educators who, "because of their interest, concern and commitment provided African American youth a quality education during those years of segregation and exclusion."

Part two contains four previously unpublished research articles from area scholars. These selections reflect a variety of historical methods from archival document analysis to the analysis of census data to oral history. The first article examines the lives of free blacks in Wilmington during the period before the Civil War. The second compares employment patterns of black and white immigrant workers in 1850, 1880, and 1910. The third analyzes education and employment from 1950 to 1990 in Delaware and the Eastern Shore. The final paper in this section views the civil rights years through the eyes of one of its leaders, Littleton Mitchell. Part three, Lesson Plans, provides plans for teachers for the articles contained in part one.

We offer this book most of all because it is a history that is forgotten; a history that somehow has not yet made it to the shelves of our public libraries and into the collective memories of our citizenry. We would like to thank many people for helping to make this project possible. The Christian Council of Delaware and the Eastern Shore, with special thanks to Beth Doty and Pat McClurg; The Speer Trust Commission of New Castle Presbytery which made an exception to fund an "academic" project which we are very glad they did; Gail Brittingham who coordinated all correspondence and submissions and typed every draft; Ray Wolters and Howard Johnson who read and commented upon the papers; and, the various offices and departments of the University of Delaware that carried us through at the end.

Carole Marks
Black American Studies

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Last Updated: June 24, 1997